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After two days of grueling debate, the House of Commons voted to give the controversial House of Lords Reform Bill a second reading, but the bill faces an uncertain future after ministers were forced to scrap their proposed timetable for further debate.
The House of Lords Reform Bill would transform the chamber into a 450-member body whose members are 80 percent elected/20 percent appointed. The Church of England’s General Synod would also elect 12 bishops to sit in the reformed House of Lords as Lords Spiritual. Members who are not Lords Spiritual would serve for a single 15-year term.
The House of Commons spent two days debating whether or not to give the House of Lords Reform Bill a second reading. A second reading debate is concerned with the general principles behind the bill, and an affirmative vote allows the bill to progress to committee stage. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg began the debate by saying that the bill was about “fixing a flawed institution.”
“We believe that the people who make the laws should be chosen by the people who are subject to those laws,” he continued. “We are only one of only two countries in the world —the other being Lesotho—with an upper parliamentary chamber that is totally unelected and instead selects its members by birthright and patronage.”
“At the heart of the Bill is the vision of a House of Lords that is more modern, more representative and more legitimate—a Chamber fit for the 21st century,” he said.
Speaking for the opposition, Labour MP Sadiq Khan endorsed the broad principles behind the bill. “The Labour party remains very much in favour of reforming the second Chamber and will support the Bill on Second Reading,” he said. However, Khan went on to warn that “our support for giving the Bill a Second Reading should therefore not be taken as a blank cheque.”
He went on to identify a number of areas where Labour felt that the bill needed major work. He felt that clause 2, which declares that the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 will continue to apply to the reformed House of Lords, would not be a sufficient safeguard to ensure the Commons’ primacy.
The Parliament Acts to which Khan referred prevent the Lords from blocking legislation indefinitely. They can, however, still delay it for a year. A year is an eternity in politics, and few governments would want to wait that long to see their proposals become law. In practice, it is usually a moot point since the House of Lords usually defers to the Commons before the Parliament Acts come into play. But it is far from certain that a predominantly elected chamber would feel the need to show the same deference. “Why should elected Members of the second Chamber be bound by conventions that bind a Chamber of hereditary and appointed peers?” asked Khan.
“The Bill recognizes that conventions may evolve, and assumes this will happen of its own accord during the transition phases. We believe that that is too passive and is a dangerous position. The obvious questions requiring clarification include the following. What is the position on the Salisbury-Addison convention about Bills and the prevention of manifesto commitments? What about the convention that the Lords does not usually object to secondary legislation? More than 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation go through Parliament each year; the Parliament Acts do not cover this,” Khan continued.
Khan also objected to the fact that the reformed House of Lords would still have appointed members. “By allowing some Members still to be appointed, the Deputy Prime Minister is weakening his own arguments for having elected Members in the second Chamber.”
In addition, Khan castigated the government for its refusal to allow a referendum on its proposed changes. “[Nick Clegg] said a referendum was not needed because proposals to reform the House of Lords were in all three main parties’ manifestos. The manifestos said very different things, however. While Labour and the Lib Dems called for a wholly elected second Chamber—albeit Labour wanted a referendum as well—the Conservatives sought only to find consensus.”
As the debate wore on, the scale of Conservative discontent became increasingly apparent as backbencher after backbencher rose to voice their opposition to the bill. Conor Burns, a ministerial aide to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, went so far as to quite in order to vote against the bill. Another ministerial aide, Angie Bray, was sacked when she too voted against the bill.
Although the bill ultimately received a second reading by a vote of 462 to 124, the government chose not to move the program motion that would have set out a timetable for its future progress. Labour had announced that it would not support the motion because it did not allow enough time for debate, and there were enough Conservative rebels that the motion would have failed without Labour’s support.
According to the Daily Telegraph, Downing Street has set up a special team to negotiate with the rebel backbenchers over the summer. Prime Minister David Cameron is said to have told his MPs that he is willing to consider a range of concessions, from reducing the number of elected members to allowing more time for debate. If he cannot win over more of his backbenchers, he is said to be willing to completely scrap the bill when Parliament returns from its summer recess.
Image Courtesy of The Prime Minister’s Office