House of Lords Reform

Letter to the Daily Telegraph 9th July

I am a Conservative. I always have been, and I always will be. I believe, body and soul, that every generation inherits the priceless gift of human society. It is our solemn duty to preserve and enhance that endowment, and then to pass it on to the next generation. For me that has always meant a strong and robustly defended nation state, proper control of the public finances, a sound enterprise economy and a safety net for those who need it. That's what Conservatism is.

It also means a belief in the British constitution, which sustains our government and society and respects our great institutions. That is why I am so appalled at the constitutional catastrophe that is the new House of Lords Reform Bill, which those of us in the House of Commons will debate and vote on today and tomorrow. And I am truly grieved, more than I can say, that it is a Conservative-led Government that has introduced this legislation, and that will now be pushing it through Parliament, in defiance of due process and all established precedent.

The issue is not whether the House of Lords should be reformed. It should, and various common-sense changes have been proposed, such as the conversion of hereditary to life peerages; a reduction in the number of members; an enhanced Appointments Commission; improved powers of scrutiny; and the removal of peers who have committed serious criminal offences. There is also a case for separating the peerage from the legislature.

But election is something else entirely. It is an absolutely fundamental and radical change to the mechanism of government itself. At present, the Lords is complementary to the Commons, offering advice and expertise but without the ability to get its way. The Lords may disagree with the Commons, but ultimately no law can be passed without the latter's positive assent.

Elect the Lords, however, and the two chambers become competitive. Emboldened by its new mandate, the upper chamber will start to throw its weight around. More ministers will come from there. Detailed consideration of amendments will be replaced by oftenautomatic rejection driven by party whips, as occurs in the Commons now.

Worse, the lamentable decision to use the party list system for the Lords elections means that there will be a further transfer of power to political parties, reducing the scope for deep expertise and genuine independence of mind to play their part in our national political life. When members of the European Parliament became elected under a similar system, they started throwing their weight around - and what, after all, would the point be of electing the House of Lords if not to empower it?

The inevitable result of all this will be gridlock and constitutional crisis. Does anyone really believe that this country needs a second House of Commons, let alone one that undermines the existing chamber? Is there any question to which 400-odd new elected politicians is the answer?

Then there is the timing. Our country is still suffering from the largest economic downturn for 70 years. The eurozone remains in crisis. Major international defence and security commitments are being wound down in Afghanistan and Libya. The Government is simultaneously dealing with an enormous national debt and structural deficit, huge budget cuts (with all the attendant difficulties) and a massive programme of legislative reform.

Long-overdue structural changes are under way in education, welfare, local government, health care and policing. These issues are of vital importance to the British people, and to the future of our nation. The Government deserves enormous credit for the energy and purpose with which it has pursued these reforms. They should remain the overriding priority, not the abolition of the Lords.

Finally, there is the question of Scotland. It now seems extremely likely that there will be a referendum on independence either next year or the year after. Unlike an elected House of Lords, Scottish independence is a highly contentious and pressing issue for many people on both sides of the border.

The secession of Scotland from Great Britain would throw our constitutional arrangements into turmoil. It makes no sense to consider the issue of electing the House of Lords before the basic question is decided of who will be governed by such a House, and how.

The arguments offered in favour of the Bill are entirely spurious. The House of Lords is not a failed institution: as the Government's own White Paper says, "the House of Lords and its members have served this country with distinction". The elected Lords will not be more accountable: on the contrary, peers will have non-renewable 15-year terms.

Nor will it be better able to hold the government of the day to account. The fact is that the Blair government was defeated just four times in the Commons over a 10-year period. It was defeated 460 times in the House of Lords. In other words, the Lords was in many ways better than the Commons at holding the then government to account.

No, this Bill must be defeated at all costs. In a parliamentary career of 29 years, I have only voted once against my party, over the Options for Change defence programme. It is with the deepest reluctance that I have concluded that I must do so again. I call upon all my parliamentary colleagues to consider this vital matter with the most careful attention, and see if they should not do the same.


Nicholas Soames's Speech during the Second Reading Debate of the House of Lords Reform Bill - Monday, 9th July 2012

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): I thought that the speech by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) was magnificent, so she should not give any consideration to her concerns.

I wholly support the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who captured the whole sense of what is wrong with the Bill. When one considers the great historical events that have shaped our British constitutional and political history—Magna Carta, the Reformation, the civil war, the Glorious Revolution, the Great Reform Act—it is easy to understand why a former distinguished Speaker, the great Baroness Boothroyd, on a programme on the wireless this morning, described the Bill as a constitutional outrage.

On the same programme, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), in an impertinent assertion—I am sorry he is not here to take his medicine—assured the world that Churchill would have voted for this proposal. First, that is not for him to say, given that he has absolutely no idea whether it would have been the case and, secondly, most historians would agree that it is highly unlikely that Churchill would ever have voted for an elected second Chamber, which he would rightly have perceived as a serious challenge to the House of Commons.

Most people looking in on our proceedings would think it extraordinary that in a country where so few things work—I think of the Government’s dismal inability even to fix the immigration controls at Heathrow—we should be setting about wasting an inordinate amount of valuable Government time on proposals that are ill thought out and falsely conceived, as part of a deal to conciliate our coalition partners.

The country faces global challenges. These are not peaceful, fertile times with the space to consider and reform at leisure one of the greatest and most important institutions of the land. Like all my colleagues, however, I accept that there are useful and important reforms that should be made to their lordships’ House without upsetting the constitutional applecart. I say to my own Front-Bench team that by pushing ahead with this foolish enterprise, they are diminishing the Government’s sense of urgency and purpose to put our country back in a better place. They are throwing away the chance to build on the British public’s clear and—in my lifetime—unique understanding that we live in an era of great austerity, that there are difficult and important decisions to take and that the Government should get on and take them, rather than worrying about undermining our constitution.

The essential argument is that the creation of an elected second Chamber would inevitably transform relations between the two Chambers and would produce a House that would increasingly be in competition with the House of Commons. The evidence of the Clerk of the House in this regard should be studied most carefully by all those who intend to vote on these profoundly disappointing proposals. The House is going to vote potentially to enshrine in our national political life the recipe for a permanent constitutional crisis.

Of course, the House of Lords needs reforming—it is too big and there are sensible measures that we could take—but I profoundly believe that an appointed House has very real merit. It can deliberately reflect the diversity of our country in a way that the House of Commons simply cannot. The present House of Lords has the same gender balance as us, an honourable and long-standing tradition of ethnic diversity and, incidentally, a considerable number of disabled Members. Most importantly, however, it contains a vast reservoir of talent and experience that complements a more youthful and aggressive House of Commons without ever being able to threaten it.

The Bill will inevitably lead to the greater politicisation of the House of Lords, blur the harmonious and distinctive differences between the two Houses and remove the correctly unambiguous democratic mandate that the House of Commons rightly enjoys. The Bill will pile a constitutional crisis on top of an economic crisis that we all know will last for a long time. The Conservative party has honoured the obligation in our manifesto; that commitment has been discharged. It is now the duty of every Member to consider their position carefully before knowingly doing something to unpick that which we know works, however imperfectly. We should wait for better hours and better days, when we have the space and the time really to think this through.


9th July, 2012 

Vol 548

No 28

columns 103-104