The 1997 Labour government’s constitutional reform programme: 25 years on

25 years have passed since the Labour election win of 1997, which preceded a plethora of constitutional changes, including partial reform of the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Human Rights Act. Tom Leeman summarises the contributions of three expert speakers (Professor Robert Hazell, Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti and Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton) at a recent Unit event to mark the anniversary.

This year marked a quarter of a century since the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 General Election on 1 May. Blair’s first government embarked upon a programme of constitutional reform, many elements of which, such as devolution, the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the status of hereditary peers in the Lords, still spark debate in the UK today.

To mark the anniversary and discuss the Blair government’s constitutional legacy the Unit convened an event with three expert panellists: Professor Robert Hazell, founding Director of the Constitution Unit, who supported the Cook-Maclennan talks on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 1996; Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton, who served as Lord Chancellor in the second and third Blair ministries from 2003 until 2007; and Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, who was Director of Liberty from 2003 until 2016. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.

Robert Hazell

Robert Hazell presented slides to summarise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme from their first election victory in 1997 until Gordon Brown’s resignation as prime minister in 2010. The reforms in Blair’s first term (1997-2001) were the biggest package of constitutional reforms in the twentieth century. They included devolution of power to assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in 1998; incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law in the Human Rights Act; and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

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What can be done about the House of Lords?

More than 20 years has passed since the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords in what was billed as the first phase of wider reform, and little has happened in the intervening decades. The Unit hosted a webinar to ask three long-serving parliamentarians what should change about the House of Lords, and how realistic is hope of major reform? Tom Fieldhouse summarises the discussion.

House of Lords reform is one of those issues that never seems to go away – in part because very little ever seems to happen.  

This perennial, complex, and often contentious issue was the subject of a Constitution Unit webinar, held on 13 January, entitled ‘What can be done about the House of Lords?’, where a distinguished panel of parliamentarians discussed the difficulties that hinder reform, whether new approaches are needed, and what those might be. 

The event was chaired by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Professor Meg Russell, herself an expert on the question of Lords reform. Speakers were Baroness (Angela) Smith of Basildon, Labour’s Shadow Leader of the House of Lords; Lord (Michael) Jay of Ewelme, Crossbench peer and former Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission; and Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Conservative chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee and former chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which has reported on Lords reform

The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast.  

Baroness Smith of Basildon 

Baroness Smith began her remarks by suggesting that whereas most debates about Lords reform tend to focus on ‘form’ (namely, who is in the second chamber and how they get there), we should begin by focusing on ‘function’ (what we want the chamber to do, and how it can best achieve that).  

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The Grocott Bill and the future of hereditary peers in the House of Lords

Today the House of Lords will announce the election of a new hereditary peer. Lord (Bruce) Grocott has once again put a bill before parliament to abolish the by-elections by which departing hereditary peers are replaced, following the removal of their automatic right to a seat in parliament in 1999. As David Beamish explains, the bill is unlikely to succeed despite having a great deal of support both inside and outside of the Lords. 

Following the Labour government’s reform of the House of Lords in 1999, 90 elected hereditary peers (as well as two office-holders, the Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain) remained part of the House of Lords, with – pending the promised second stage of reform – a system of by-elections to replace any who subsequently departed. The second stage did not happen and the by-elections remain as one of the strangest quirks of the UK constitution. In a 2018 blog post on the ongoing frustrations of those who sought reform to this system, I was rash enough to conclude that ‘there may nevertheless be some prospect of real progress in relation to both the size of the House of Lords and the ending of the hereditary peer by-elections’. The past three years appear to have proved me wrong.

House of Lords Standing Order 9(5) requires a by-election to be held within three months of a vacancy occurring among the hereditary peers (due to a death or retirement). This was suspended after the start of the pandemic in March 2020, alongside the postponement of local authority elections, initially until September, and then to the end of that year. Following a report from the Procedure and Privileges Committee, there was then another extension of the moratorium. A further report from that committee proposed yet another ‘short further suspension, until after Easter 2021, at which point the position should be reviewed again’. Finally, following another report from the committee, by-elections restarted, with a backlog of six vacancies to be filled.

There are five different electorates for by-elections: 15 of the 90 were elected by the whole House, and all members can vote in by-elections to replace them. The other 75 were elected by hereditary peers in their respective groups: 42 Conservatives, 28 Crossbenchers, three Liberal Democrats, and two Labour. The remaining hereditary peers in those groups can vote in by-elections to replace departed colleagues. Only four separate elections were needed when the moratorium on by-elections ended, as three of the vacancies were among the Conservative peers, and all three were filled together. For the first time, the arrangements were for the ballots to be conducted ‘using electronic means’, with the option of a postal vote for members ‘who have accessibility needs which mean they cannot use the online voting system or who do not have a parliamentary email address’. The four by-elections took place in June and July 2021.

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The House of Lords is too large: party leaders must put aside short-term interests and agree plans to reduce its numbers

Five years after its creation, the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House has called for firm, fast action on reducing the number of peers in the legislature. Chair of the committee, Lord (Terry) Burns, argues that it is essential that party leaders have the courage to come together and agree the necessary measures. 

To mark the retirement of Lord (Norman) Fowler as Lord Speaker, the committee he set up to make recommendations on reducing the size of the House of Lords recently published its fourth report. I have had the intriguing task of chairing the committee, which was ably advised by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Meg Russell.

The House of Lords has too many members

There have been over 1,500 life peers appointed since the enactment of the Life Peerages Act 1958. Of those, just over 800 have now died or retired. The net result is a House today consisting of some 700 life peers, 92 hereditary peers (there are currently vacancies because several by-elections were postponed due to the pandemic) and 26 bishops. The numbers for hereditary peers and bishops are both set by legislation, and it follows that changes to the overall size of the House are now determined almost entirely by increases or decreases in the number of life peers – which is not limited by statute or convention.

During the first 30 or so years of life peerages, there were an average of 20 appointments per year, which has since risen to 30 per year. The average age at appointment has been reasonably steady at 60, with a small decline in recent years.

There were relatively few leavers in the early years owing to the small size of the group of life peers, but over the past 30 years the average number has been close to 20 per year. The average age of leavers has risen over time, reflecting increased life expectancy, and has stood at a little over 80 in recent years.

The House was greatly reduced in size by the 1999 reforms, which removed hundreds of hereditary peers, but concerns have been raised during the past 10 years about its increasing size as the number of life peers rose above 700 and the total number of members moved back above 800. Several relatively small legislative changes have been introduced allowing for retirements and excluding members after a period of non-attendance – but all attempts to change the composition of the House have foundered.

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Boris Johnson and parliament: misunderstandings and structural weaknesses

On 21 January Unit Director Meg Russell appeared on a panel with two former Conservative Chief Whips, reflecting on Boris Johnson’s troubled relationship with parliament as Prime Minister. In this post she presents her central arguments – that the Johnson government in its early months has seemed to demonstrate some basic misunderstandings about parliament and its role; but also the government’s behaviour has highlighted some of parliament’s key weaknesses.

In early September 2020 I wrote a blogpost on Boris Johnson and parliament, which documented 13 unhappy episodes in 13 months. I had originally aimed at producing a list of 10 such episodes, but found that there was just too much material. Some of the incidents were obvious – such as the attempted prorogation the previous September, ultimately ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Others have continued to bubble along unhappily in the subsequent months – including the persistent refusal by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to provide time for MPs to debate and agree proposals from the Procedure Committee to allow them to work virtually during the pandemic (frequently covered on this blog – see here and here), and the sporadic suggestions from government sources that the House of Lords should move to York. Some incidents were more obscure, but worth recalling for the record – such as Downing Street’s attempt to impose Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (which rather dramatically backfired).

Of course that post was written five months ago, and the list continues to gets longer. It predated, for example, the dramatic showdown with former Conservative leaders over the government’s Internal Market Bill. It predated the announcement of the new Christmas lockdown rules during Commons recess, and the government’s refusal to allow a recall to debate them – despite protests by numerous Conservative backbenchers. It noted Johnson’s excessive first round of Lords appointments, but not his second within six months – both in clear breach of the Lord Speaker’s hardfought attempts to control the size of the chamber. It predated Johnson’s overruling of the House of Lords Appointments Commission’s recommendations on propriety, for the first time by any Prime Minister in the Commission’s 20-year existence.

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