The White Paper on Lords reform appears to have been received with indifference, buried away on the inside pages of the broadsheets and treated as a second-order item by BBC News Online. Even ministers apparently had lost interest before it had even been published. It is not difficult to see why.
As I anticipated, it makes no intellectual case for electing the second chamber and bandies about terms like ‘democratic’ and ‘legitimate’ without defining them. One chapter is headed ‘A reformed chamber: increased legitimacy’ but doesn’t define the term let alone discuss how the proposals will increase legitimacy. It is a White Paper (statement of Government policy) yet has all the characteristics of a Green Paper (consultation paper), identifying options and inviting views (what size should it be?). It does, though, avoid confusing ‘representative’ as denoting a principal-agent relationship with a socially typical House by, as far as I can see, completely ignoring the latter – there is no discussion of how the present diversity of the House will be maintained or even extended. What is to prevent it becoming a House of elected white, male middle-class politicians?
The statement on the White Paper received a very negative response in the Lords – with some cogent criticisms coming from Baroness d’Souza on the cross-benches and Lord Cunningham on the Labour benches – and wasn’t particularly well received in the Commons. Some of the best comments were made by MPs. From the Labour benches, Sir Gerald Kaufman declared: ‘Having read the White Paper, I congratulate him [Jack Straw] on producing a masterpiece of imprecision, vacillation and obfuscation that cannot possibly lead to meaningful legislation – a consequence entirely to be desired’. However, the comment I liked best came from Conservative MP Desmond Swayne: ‘I voted for an elected second Chamber, but I am struggling to remember quite why. The Lord Chancellor has sought to detain us with his statement notwithstanding the fact that the existing arrangements seem to be working pretty well and that there is no prospect of consensus between the two chambers.’
The ministerial responses in the two chambers were not exactly persuasive. When Jack Straw was asked if the issue should not be put to a referendum, he replied ‘It has never been the view of any party that such a complex issue ought to be put to a referendum’. So let me see if I have got this right: the draft Constitutional Treaty for Europe was not a complex issue (presumably neither is membership of the Euro zone) but reform of the House of Lords is. Hmm, interesting.
The White/Green Paper can be found at: