This morning’s Radio 4 coverage of the oncoming debate on Lords reform made little attempt at balance. They gave prominent coverage to opponent Betty Boothroyd. A supporter may have been given airtime while I wasn’t listening – but if so they did not get a mention on the website. But at least Baroness Boothroyd’s bluster gives supporters of reform plenty of ammunition.
Baroness Boothroyd, a former Labour MP and the House of Commons’s first (and only) female Speaker is treated as a bit of a national treasure – understandable given her remarkable life story, and the determination with which she climbed the greasy pole to celebrity. She is deeply conservative, and loves all that fake tradition and flummery that the British Parliament wallows in. But beyond this emotional attachment, she seems unable to give good reasons in their defence.
Her main point was that electing members of the upper house (whatever it would be called) would give it more power, and elevate its status to beyond that of a mere revising chamber that is not meant to get in the way of the Government and its whipped majority in the House of Commons. She suggested that the reform would lead to the upper house challenging financial legislation, something which it is currently unable to do. She also accused the reform’s proponents of not having thought things through, and insisted that it should be debated at length in parliament.
But this is mostly complete nonsense. The reform bill does not propose to change the current powers of the upper house – which means that it would not have the ability to challenge financial legislation. The primacy of the Commons is categorically included in the draft bill. Debate on the floor of parliament is not grand dialectical process by which laws get improved through earnest challenge and debate – it’s a theatre for the pompous to spout off pre-conceived opinions without listening to anybody else’s. The challenge and debate comes in the consultation process that surrounds the debate. This has been extensive, both in this parliament and in various predecessors. The arguments have been rehearsed many times, and solutions to the many problems devised. Having hammered out a workable compromise it is now time to decide, subject to a bit more wheeling and dealing, perhaps.
But what Baroness Boothroyd showed was that she herself could not be bothered to find out about what the proposals actually were. So what value does she contribute to the revising chamber that she defends, beyond a few deeply held prejudices? The trouble with the House of Lords is that it is full of people like her – and not the valuable experts that its supporters claim. What on earth is the point of it? Why not just abolish it all together?
The is much to criticise in the Government’s reform proposals. But they do deal with the two main weaknesses of the current house. First it shrinks it to a sensible size, including the use of limited terms of office (rather staying until you drop dead, as now) . Second it replaces patronage systems of appointment with an electoral process. These two steps will help to professionalise it, and then make it rather more effective in its job of challenging and improving lower house legislation. It may not succeed. 15 year non-renewable terms may mean that those elected just soak up the status and grandstand rather than doing any real work. And Baroness Boothroyd’s fear that it may just get in the way of government without adding value is not itself complete nonsense, unlike the bluster with which supported it. Being elected might give its members licence to be simply obstructive.
But it’s worth a try. If it doesn’t work we can change it. Or abolish it altogether.