The Tory Case for Lords Reform

Steven Dorrell, a former Conservative minister, has written an excellent article in the Guardian - yes, I know, but not everything written in the Grauniad is wrong - on why Tories who believe in limited government and checks and balances should support House of Lords reform.

You can read the full article here but this is an extract:

If Lords reform disturbs the balance in Westminster, all to the good

Tories should recognise that a stronger House of Commons would encourage Whitehall to drop its lazy habits.

House of Lords reform is not just a Lib Dem policy – it is also a Tory policy ... This is in danger of being lost amid the political rhetoric. Some Conservatives may disagree, but every Conservative manifesto since 2001 has included a commitment to reform the upper house.

There are not many obvious arguments in favour of a status quo where one house of parliament has nearly 800 members, the majority of whom were appointed by prime ministerial patronage. There are, on the other hand, well-established Tory arguments for a reformed second chamber that would provide a more effective check on the legislative ambitions of a House of Commons dominated by the executive.

Many of the concerns expressed about the government's proposals have focused on the balance between Lords and Commons – it is argued that a largely elected Lords will challenge the primacy of the Commons and disturb the balance of parliament. I am in favour of disturbing the balance – but it is the balance between Westminster and Whitehall that concerns me most.

A familiar complaint about our system is that it subjects us to a torrent of ill-considered laws. This may sound like a whinge from a weary insider, but it is more important than that. The ease with which governments are able to push proposals through parliament encourages a lazy habit of thought in Whitehall, where the answer to virtually every problem is more legislation. Instead of asking serious questions about how to change social attitudes and behaviour or improve public administration, the preferred option is to change the law. It answers a political problem by creating the illusion of action but in fact changes nothing.

That is why I favour a stronger parliament that provides a more effective reality check on proposals for new laws and insists that they are justified against a more substantive test than a government's desire to make a political point. Parliamentary reformers have sometimes tried to achieve this result by procedural changes in the House of Commons. Such changes are welcome, but they don't address the central point: the Commons is first and foremost the assembly which determines and then sustains the government of the day.

A stronger upper house will be more independent of the executive, more able to exercise independent judgment, without undermining the authority of the Government or the primacy of the House of Commons.

You don't have to believe that the government's proposals are perfect to believe that they will lead to a stronger House of Lords. I am not an enthusiast for 15-year single terms, but I believe that this form of largely elected house will provide a more effective legislative check than the current house can provide; I therefore believe it represents an important step in the direction of better governance.

The bill's opponents sometimes argue that this strengthened legislative check will inevitably undermine the ability of the government to carry through difficult decisions.

I don't agree; the shape of the government will continue to be determined by seats in the Commons, and the Commons will retain exclusive control of the purse strings, as well as the right to insist on legislation under the terms of the Parliament Act. The government's political accountability will continue to be to the Commons, and this will create the opportunity for the Lords to play a different role within parliament – working to a more measured timescale and insisting that legislation is used more as a rifle and less as a blunderbuss.

Constitutional buffs will always produce better solutions. Some will argue for a different voting system; others will argue for a different definition of powers; all will have their own version of utopia. But none of their arguments address the Tory case for reform.

The House of Commons provides an effective forum for enforcing the political accountability of the executive, but it is not an effective legislative assembly. Britain would be better governed if a reformed upper house had a democratic mandate to fulfil this role. This approach should appeal to a Tory instinct precisely because it is limited and incremental and makes no attempt to create a new constitutional blueprint.

It builds on changes introduced over the last 100 years and does not preclude later changes in the light of experience; but in the meantime it aims to restrict the torrent of half-baked legislation by strengthening the democratic roots of parliament. What's to oppose in that?


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