1st March 2013
BY MEG RUSSELL
Yesterday (28 February) the coalition suffered a massive defeat in the House of Lords over the question of David Cameron’s right to appoint new peers. This reflected widespread concern among existing members that new appointments could lead to increasingly bloated numbers, and also weaken the chamber’s ability to hold the government to account. The ill-tempered debate took place amid rumours that new government appointees are on the way.
The defeat was on a motion proposed by senior Liberal Democrat (and former party leader) David Steel, as amended by Labour frontbencher Philip Hunt. Steel’s original motion called for a complete halt to the introduction of any new peers until arrangements had been made to allow members to permanently retire. This was a novel proposal, because the Prime Minister (and nominally the monarch) controls appointments, but the Lords controls its own procedures, and could in theory refuse new members an introduction ceremony. But this was considered too incendiary by many peers, encroaching on the powers of the monarchy; so Hunt’s amendment merely called for “restraint” in creation of new peers, and for immediate introduction of retirement procedures, and barring peers who do not attend or are convicted of criminal offences. This more cautious approach did the trick, and attracted overwhelming support from peers.
Despite the government whipping against the proposal, only 45 peers opposed it (31 Conservative, 11 Liberal Democrat, 2 Crossbench and 1 other) while 217 supported Steel and Hunt (35 Conservative, 16 Liberal Democrat, 94 Labour, 57 Crossbench and 15 others). For full details of those voting see here. This defeat – by 172 votes – was the coalition’s largest to date, and certainly the first in which the number of rebels in both coalition parties exceeded the number of loyal voters. In fact, it was the third largest defeat in the Lords since its reform in 1999, being exceeded only by resistance to Labour’s Prevention of Terrorism Bill introducing control orders (in 2005) and Counter-Terrorism Bill over holding terror suspects for 42 days without charge (in 2008).
The vote therefore demonstrates real alarm and anger inside the Lords about the threat of ‘swamping’ by new government peers, and significant tensions inside the coalition. The coalition agreement suggested that appointments would be used to bring the Lords into line with general election vote shares, but as a Constitution Unit report in 2011 pointed out that this would require appointment of 269 new peers (or 349 if Crossbenchers were to maintain their current share of seats), bringing its size to 1062 (or 1142). This research was cited in the debate by Lord Hunt. Notably UKIP (see column 1651) have begun to demand the 24 peers that they would be due under strict proportionality, and other parties such as the BNP could do the same. Since the furore caused by our report, appointments have been very limited. But the government has not officially renounced its earlier rather foolish pledge.
Of course, the wider context is the bitter issue of Lords reform within the coalition. Resistance from Conservative MPs meant Nick Clegg’s reform bill to introduce elections to the chamber had to be dropped. Lord Steel opposes elections, and has several times promoted a bill to facilitate small ‘tidying up’ changes, including retirement for peers. This is due for debate in the Commons today, sponsored by Conservative MP Eleanor Laing, but is likely to be blocked by the whips. Nick Clegg had previously argued that it was important to “not make the best the enemy of the good” when it came to Lords reform, but having been angered by the blocking of his bill he has clearly changed his mind. Lord Steel read from a recent parliamentary written answer, which stated that “In the absence of full reform, it is the Government’s view that there is no easy set of smaller reforms to the House of Lords… So reform measures must include introducing elected Members to the House of Lords”.
Yet as former Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman said in yesterday’s debate, “it is not responsible to continue to do nothing”. Statistics were traded, and Leader of the House Lord Hill suggested that the number of peers eligible to attend is barely larger than it was in 2007 (761 to 738). But this carefully excluded 50 members on temporary leave of absence and the like, who can potentially return. The total eligible membership, at 811, is significantly higher than at any time since 1999. Additionally, as some members pointed out, the rise in active members is far higher. Immediately post-reform in 1999 the average daily attendance was 352; in 2010-12 it was 475.
But this issue is also now highly politicised. Labour fears that the coalition – which is already numerically stronger than it ever was when in government 1997-2010 – will use new peerage creations to smother Lords’ resistance, and end defeats (this being its 62nd since taking office). The coalition claims that numerous Labour peers were appointed by Blair and Brown – which is true, and added to the chamber’s size, but never gave government anything close to a political majority.
The fundamental problem is that there is no agreement about how seats should be shared between the parties, and no constraints – aside from political embarrassment – on prime ministerial patronage power. What is urgently needed is some formula, agreed between the parties, under which any future appointments will be made. Linking this in some way to general election vote shares is reasonable, but not in the way that the coalition agreement laid down. Earlier proposals, such as those from the Wakeham Royal Commission, suggested that each new set of appointments should be in line with votes – which is a far more sustainable formula. For example, if 10 new peers were appointed in line with the 2010 result these would be shared 4 Conservative, 3 Labour, 2 Lib Dem, 1 other. Such proportions would vary only slightly over time (the 1997 equivalent would be 4 Labour, 3 Conservative, 2 Lib Dem, 1 other). But the trouble is that the baseline membership of the chamber matters too, and the coalition considers itself underrepresented (insofar as that claim is justified, it essentially just applies to the Lib Dems). If we are to engage in grown-up politics, the three parties should sit down and urgently and agree a future appointment formula, alongside some trimming of the existing membership so that the starting point is fair. But this would require maturity, and also the kind of retirement provision sought by Lord Steel. There would also need to be a strict cap agreed on the overall size of the chamber.
The Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has recently announced an inquiry into what immediate reforms are needed to the Lords following the failure of Clegg’s bill. If it can agree a cross-party report on such matters, this could be a first step to ending the present bitterness in the Lords, and ensuring that public confidence in parliament doesn’t dip further by the chamber being made to look absurd.
Meg Russell is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and leads its research on parliament.
Her new book ‘The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived’ will be published by OUP this summer. See here: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199671564.do
For the Unit’s research on the Lords see: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/parliament/house-of-lords