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Caerphilly MP Wayne David’s blog: April 16

Published in Comment, News. Last updated on Monday April 16th, 2012 at 13:00

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Reform of the House of Lords
On May 9 the Queen will be coming to the House of Lords to deliver her “Queen’s Speech”. This will set out the Government’s “agenda” for the next session. If the very strong rumours are correct, at the centre of the Speech will be a Bill to reform the House of Lords.

Even though the country is facing huge economic problems, the Government in Westminster has decided that the most important thing for Parliament to consider is the reform of the House of Lords. This is because the Deputy Prime Minster, Nick Clegg, is very worried that the Liberal Democrats have got very little to show for agreeing to be part of the Conservative-led Government. It was a big disappointment for Mr Clegg when the electorate conclusively voted against his plan for the Alternative Vote in last year’s referendum.

Strangely the Deputy Prime Minister is however extremely reluctant to give a referendum on Lords Reform, even though it is one of the most significant changes to our constitution in years. As Labour’s Constitutional Reform spokesman I will be arguing that as the Government is currently holding referendums on elected Mayors and last year we had a vote on whether the Welsh Assembly should have more powers, surely we should have a vote on Lords Reform just as we had a vote on whether the voting system for Westminster should be changed. This is not only the view of myself and the Labour Party, it is also the view of a whole range of constitutional academic experts.

I also think it is very important that before we have an elected or partly elected second Chamber, as the Government are proposing, we give careful thought to precisely what powers the second Chamber has. The danger is that if you have two elected Chambers then there will be constant disagreement between them. At the moment if there is a big difference of opinion between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, it is the House of Commons which always prevails. This is because “primacy” is held by the House of Commons because of 1) the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 make it clear that the final say in most cases should rest with the Commons, and 2) the House of Commons alone has a popular mandate from the people whereas the House of Lords does not.

This second point is very important. The fear that many of us have is that if both Houses are elected then the Lords can claim that they have just as much right to argue for something as does the Commons. In our Parliamentary democracy the view of the people, as expressed through the ballot box, is paramount. If both Houses claim a mandate from the people, the very real danger is that there will be permanent disagreement or “gridlock” between the two Houses. This could lead to Government grinding to a halt.

This is why Labour will be arguing for important changes to the Government’s Bill when it comes before the House of Commons. Inevitably, these are complicated issues and are not easily resolved. But I believe it is important that any historic changes are properly thought through.

Wayne David
Labour MP for Caerphilly

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  • Richard Williams

    Wayne David provides an interesting and clear message on the pitfalls of reform and his views on this matter. He says,

    "The fear that many of us have is that if both Houses are elected then the Lords can claim that they have just as much right to argue for something as does the Commons."

    Well, if it were an elected chamber the Lords would have an equal claim to power, primacy of the Commons would cease. Many countries do have this system. In America the House of Representatives can vote for legislation only to see it rejected by Senators in Congress. Things do not end there however, if both houses are in agreement the Supreme Court can declare the intended law to be 'unconstitutional' and throw it out. Even if the Supreme Court rules that the legislation conforms to constitutional guidelines the President, as the Executive power, can decide he does not like it and veto.

    All these checks and balances have operated in the USA since 1776 and America has developed into a wealthy nation. This does not mean that American politicians do not complain of the "gridlock" which sometimes results but the system works and prevents politicians from attaining absolute power to do as they wish. That has to be a good thing doesn't it?

    I do agree with Wayne that now is the wrong time to be dealing with this issue, though. The government should concentrate its public school educated mind on how we are going to get out of this financial mess.

  • Rob Roffe

    Wayne is right in asserting that the Lib Dems have very little to show for their involvement in the Coalition Government. I haven’t seen a government as illiberal as this one since the days of Thatcher. On every substantive measure like welfare reform, university tuition fees, NHS reform and public service investment (or rather cuts hereto) they have short-changed not just the electorate, but also social liberals who have campaigned hard for liberal principles and values, only to see those principles and values undermined and betrayed by Clegg’s actions in government.

    It is with regret and sadness that I will not be renewing my Liberal Democrat membership after 17 years of activism, but I feel that I have little choice if I’m to remain true to the liberal principles that I passionately believe in.

    To respond more directly to Wayne’s points, I see limited value in a referendum on Lords reform, or any other complex issue for that matter. We elect representatives to act as our ‘proxies’, to get to grips with the detail of legislation and to take the decision on our behalf. The recent AV vote was a classic example of the electorate voting on something that they didn’t fully understand. The only reason we had it in the first place was because it was the best that Clegg could get from the Tories on voting reform during the coalition discussions. AV is no better than the current system that disenfranchises the millions of people who don’t vote for the ‘winning’ candidate.

    I haven’t seen the detail of the proposed Lords reforms, but surely Wayne isn’t suggesting that an unelected second chamber is preferable to one that can be held to account through the ballot box? I note his concerns about the primacy of the commons being undermined, but surely this could be addressed through legislation that clearly specifies the roles, responsibilities and remit of each chamber, so that each has a clear remit – and clearly stipulated limitations – set out in the statute. A written constitution for the UK would be a good vehicle for this.

    Whilst agreeing that there are other political priorities, reform of the Lords (and indeed the UK constitution) is long overdue. Based on his previous efforts, I do not expect much from Nick Clegg on his Lords reforms either, which are likely to be yet another bungled effort that sells liberalism short. Let’s see what the Bill proposes, and hope that our MP has the good sense to support the principle of Lords reform, ensuring that the legislation has the checks and balances that I refer to, rather than maintaining the status quo of unaccountability and ‘jobs for the old timers’.

  • Gareth Pratt

    The Lotsfor Nothingcrats, have very little to show for their slavish loyalty to the Tories because they were blinded by the possibility of getting into power, and this enabled the Tories to play them for the utter chumps they are. Tacking the AV referendum onto a bill that would see the number of constituences in Westminster reduced drastically, and thus ensuring that Labour wouldn't support such a move, or therefore the referendum bill, was a masterstroke by the Tories and the Liberals failed to see that possibility coming.

    In America both houses of Congress are elected as has been observed, but according to the constitution each house has specific areas of policy where they have the final say over the other. For instance, in tax policy and issues, the House of Representatives has the power to override the Senate, whereas in Defence and Foreign policy the Senate can override the wishes of the House of Representatives.

    Personally I favour a system where we keep an elected House of Commons and have a House of Lords where members are either elected by the STV system of Proportional Representation, or where each party can nominate candidates for the Lords according to their party strength in the opinion polls, with a set, unchanging percentage of seats set aside for Independent candidates, who would nominate themselves and would have no party affiliation, and a proven track record in Independent politics.