Troubled time in the Lords

Lord Soley

I don’t often so strongly disagree with Baroness Murphy below but I do on this issue. The core is not the referendum on AV – that is the easy bit and if the Bill had been split into parts as it should have been then  that could be back in the Commons now.

The problem is a very important constitutional one. Governments SHOULD NOT restructure the House of Commons without either all party support or an independent enquiry particularly on re ordering the constituencies  – or gerrymandering as it is called in the US.

My speech on amendment 59 linked in my post below spells out the danger of this.  This is a very difficult Bill for the opposition because we know it comes from a political agreement by just two political party’s and will disadvantage the other partys in the Commons (see my comments on the evidence for this in my last post).

It is also difficult for the cross benchers because they do not have the same ‘hinterland’ that politicians have.  Eleccted politicians have to answer to their voters and supporters.  If this goes through without some recognition that it is fundamentally wrong for governments to change Parliament without all party agreement then future governments will do the same. What will stop the next government and the one after that coming to power and deciding to change the numbers in Parliament to suit there own political advantage? This way lies gerrymandering and political instability.

Yes, what is happening is bad for the House but this Bill in its present form is bad for the constitution.

21 comments for “Troubled time in the Lords

  1. Rich
    25/01/2011 at 12:48 pm

    1. As an American, I can tell you that the bill does not have anything to do with gerrymandering. In each US state, each district is of essentially the same size. Gerrymandering has a very particular meaning: drawing those equally sized districts in such a way as to benefit one party over another. The distortion that Part 2 of the Bill seeks to redress has nothing to do with that. The independent Boundary Commissions would still draw the boundaries in a non-party-political way. If anything, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock’s attempt yesterday (or is it two days ago—the days start to run together) to have wealth factored in was the closest anyone has come to trying to introduce gerrymandering into the system.

    2. Where does this rule come from that the government needs all-party support? Was it around in 1999, 2005 or 2009? Lord Falconer has made this argument in Opposition, but I don’t remember him making it when he and Tony Blair tried to eliminate the post of Lord Chancellor, then took the judges out of the Lords. I don’t remember Gordon Brown using a commission of any kind when he tried to remove the remaining hereditaries before completing House of Lords reform, as was the agreement with Lord Cranborne at the time the House of Lords Act passed.

    In the debates, peers such as Lord McAvoy have tried to draw comparisons to LDCs where governments try to skew the electoral system to benefit themselves, but the comparison is hardly apt. The measure’s intended purpose (and I have not heard anyone argue the bill would not meet that purpose) is to make the electoral system fairer by making electors’ votes substantially the same. Equalising constituency size removes a distortion that (apparently) benefits one party rather than introducing one. Labour may have an argument about the number of MPs (though it is hard to see why 600 MPs can’t do for Britain what 435 Representatives do for the US) and about the precise rules the Boundary Commissions should use (including whether they should be able to vary size by more than 5% either way), but neither of these is such a large issue that a Royal Commission is needed. Since Labour would never have agreed to either proposal, insisting that all-party agreement is necessary ultimately seems either ill thought out or spurious.

    The other issue that has some merit is the reduction of Welsh seats. The reasonable compromise there is to have the seats reduced by the same proportion as the rest of the UK, but reduced to what is currently called for (or something close to it) if the Assembly referendum passes in May. That would be in line with what happened with Scotland. Perhaps such an amendment is already on the Marshalled List, but I’ve only bothered reading through the ones pertaining to Clause 11 (the clause which will not end).

    Perhaps the most serious argument about fairness in the electoral system is about the tie between electoral rolls and constituencies. Surely census figures would be more fair; as Opposition MPs and peers have stated ad nauseam, MPs represent the interests of and do case work for people who can’t vote. Why constituency boundaries don’t take them into consideration is an important question, yet it is one that the Opposition has barely bothered to discuss. In the end, Labour seems most concerned about protecting its own accidental electoral advantage, and every one but they seem able to see that they are filibustering to do it.

    • Senex
      26/01/2011 at 4:21 pm

      On the question of 600 have you considered the fact that all peers at one time or another have to wear a red cape which makes one mindful of the Battle of Thermopylae and some brave Spartans? The other factor in favour of this suggestion is peers were a military class associated with the Norman Conquest. The only relic we have of those times is that all senior Royals have to formally become warriors.

      On the question of boundaries I agree with what you say but correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t a version of AV widely used in the US hence equally sized boundaries? The problem for Labour in stating the inequality of such is that there has never been a precedent as the Electoral Commission has striven to remove demographic bias from favouring one party or another.

      Nice post if I may say so?

  2. baronessmurphy
    25/01/2011 at 12:50 pm

    I understand how very strongly the Opposition feel about the substance of this Bill and indeed I sympathise with the difficulties of scrutinising the 2 part bill. But we are not the elected House, we are a revising chamber and as Lord Strathclyde said yesterday it is the breakdown of the regulation of the business of the Chamber which is most worrying. To quote him: “Over the centuries we have devised ways of working based on freedom and flexibility of debate. These freedoms underpin the reputation of the House as a place of responsible and serious scrutiny and all of us value these freedoms. Part of our way of working is through the usual channels. One of their key functions is to arrange business in the Chamber so that the House makes best use of the time available to scrutinise legislation and hold a Government to account. As many noble Lords are aware, the usual channels routinely discuss an overall timescale for each Bill and come to an agreed estimate of the likely number of days required to complete Committee. The usual channels sometimes get this estimate wrong, but they operate in a way that ensures that there is flexibility if a little more, or even less, time is required.

    On this Bill, the usual channels have been unable to agree an estimate of the length of time required for Committee. This is unprecedented and worrying. Even on some of the more controversial Bills that this House has considered in the past 50 years, the usual channels have agreed the approximate amount of time to allow the House to exercise its scrutiny function fully and effectively. An agreement through the usual channels provides a framework that allows both government and opposition to conduct their business efficiently while not infringing upon the House’s right to regulate itself. Such agreements are the cornerstone of the work that we do here.”

    A breakdown in the Self Regulation of the House should be of concern to all sides of the House. Lady D’Souza expressed perfectly the views of many crossbenchers yesterday : “… the tactics that the Opposition are using to delay the Bill fly in the face of the conventions that have governed this House for perhaps the past six decades, that these tactics undoubtedly bring this House into disrepute, that any success of such tactics may well encourage their further future use, and that these factors put together may even mark the beginning of the dissolution of this House. I say this with some reluctance-even to me, it sounds somewhat dramatic-but I believe it to be true. Why would the public, let alone the other place, choose to support a Chamber that is seen to be deeply unserious in undertaking the role of revision and scrutiny? We are at a dangerous crossroads.”

    If and when the House becomes an elected second Chamber with a mandate to reject legislation and challenge the Commons if it sees fit, then these kinds of tactics may be legitimate on occasion. But not now.

    • Maude Elwes
      25/01/2011 at 1:38 pm

      Now is always a good time to start. Procrastination is never the answer. How can you test your strength if you never have a run through.

      More importantly, how can you morally pass Bills through to law knowing them to be unfit for purpose. What is the Lords if not protection from a group of individuals who will try to pass anything to suit their political expediency, whether it is for the good of the country or not?

      The Lords is, or, should be, the ‘saviour’ from such ruthless individuals.

    • Dan Filson
      25/01/2011 at 8:47 pm

      Perhaps the Leader of the House has been preoccupied with other matters.

    • Senex
      26/01/2011 at 4:35 pm

      BM: You replied in 505 words contrary to Rule 12.

      Free word count tools are available:

      Oops! Did I just break rule 6?

  3. Gareth Howell
    25/01/2011 at 1:04 pm

    just two Says Lord Soley.

    The rest is hot air. I’ll get on with something useful; digging in the garden.

    If and when the House becomes an elected second Chamber
    If! After another hundred years perhap!

    A pergola would be good. I’ll do that. something of lasting value for the grapes.

  4. Carl.H
    25/01/2011 at 1:52 pm

    I strongly agree with Lord Soley.

    The reputation of the House with the public is tarnished not because it has become uncivil but because it does not reject bills that it should. It ignores public evidence in favour of Government lop-sided statistics and research.

    This is a major constitutional issue, infact more than one. It is changing the system possibly in favour of Government without independent scrutiny which the House at present because of it`s political make-up is not giving it.

    The figure 600 is supposedly out of thin air it has no scientific base, nor according to Government Ministers have they researched what may possibly be the outcome on distribution of MP’s in a party fashion. So they are stating CLEARLY they don`t know if the system will fair and just.

    The sheer arrogance of the Tories to make an explicit case for the Isle of Wight whilst ignoring other areas where boundaries could cause worse problems is absurd and this is what damages the House’s reputation. The means by which Government are controlling this is tantamount to dictatorship.

    It is not right, it is not fair and it is not evidenced based.

    You may civily and graciously like to roll over Baroness Murphy proclaiming everyone else to be wrong but you`re simply wrong.

    600 MP’s may or may not be wrong, 500 that the next Labour Government choose may or may not be wrong but we CANNOT let governments alter the system willy nilly. It masy or may not be in the Conservatives and Lib-Dems favour do we know ? DO YOU KNOW ? I doubt it but you’re prepared to be gracious and roll over, like I expect a lot of Germans did in 1933.

    • Rich
      26/01/2011 at 7:52 pm

      “The reputation of the House with the public is tarnished … because it does not reject bills that it should.”

      Seriously? Do you have one shred of evidence that, as a matter of constitutional principle, the British people want the unelected chamber to outright reject laws passed by the elected one?

      If the 600 figure is anything, it is a halfway point between the 585 campaigned on by the Tories and the 613 number in the current statute, which has drifted upward over the years thanks to the Boundary Commission.

      It was backbenchers of both parties who made the Isle of Wight exception. The government opposed amendments in both houses on the issue, but lost in the Lords. You say they are ignoring where boundary redrawing could cause “worse problems”, but you don’t explain how any of the so called problems is actually problematic. Moreover, your point about dictatorship is a non sequitur.

      Most importantly, perhaps, you say “it’s not fair”. What’s not fair is the current system where some voters have a far more diluted vote than others, both across national boundaries and within them.

      These changes are no more serious than the many that Labour imposed without cross-party support or any sort of commission or evidence-based approach.

      Finally, that you think Baroness Murphy is “simply wrong”, demonstrates your problem: this is a complex issue, but you think that issue is simple. Your approach shows very little understanding of what is going on, the place of the House of Lords in the constitutional settlement, or the history of constitutional measures in recent years.

      • Carl.H
        27/01/2011 at 10:54 am

        “Seriously? Do you have one shred of evidence that, as a matter of constitutional principle, the British people want the unelected chamber to outright reject laws passed by the elected one?”

        The DEB not wanted by the public along with many others and many times this forum has witnessed the public coming here to beg Lords to reject bills. I am a British person, I want the Lords to have the ability to reject bills.

        “If the 600 figure is anything”

        That’s the trouble it is anything, it is not proven or even been researched by Government that this number is suitable or ideal.

        “What’s not fair is the current system where some voters have a far more diluted vote than others, both across national boundaries and within them.”

        If you want a fair vote then you MUST propose PR where no vote at all is wasted. The present system where parties bring in a candidate from outside to a safe seat constituency is no worse than PR. MP’s quite frankly do a good job in helping their constituents but do not represent their views citing party autonomy as the reasoning.

        “These changes are no more serious than the many that Labour imposed without cross-party support”.

        And I railed against a good many of those too.

        “this is a complex issue, but you think that issue is simple.”

        It is complex and that is what I have stated time and again. Complex issues deserve scrutiny and good research, listen to the Government benches -time and again they state they have not done any into the effects. It is not me who thinks the issue simple, applying a number out of thin air, suggesting boundary changes without an idea of effect and suggesting the changes will make all votes equal.

  5. Teithiwr
    25/01/2011 at 4:38 pm

    There has indeed been a failure by ‘the usual channels’ to agree in this instance. This could be due to the failure of the Government to liaise and lead coordination properly on this issue or the refusal of the Opposition to concede ground. From the outside it seems bizarre that this Bill could not have been separated into two separate Bills in order to allow for progress through the Houses and increased scrutiny.

    However it could also be that this episode has brought to light the informal way in which the House operates. A system that relies on arranging parliamentary business through secret informal deals in smokeless rooms is no way for a legislature to behave in the Twenty First Century. This informal way of working is the ‘bad behaviour’ which the Lords must overcome. This informal way of agreeing the process for scrutinising and amending legislation may have worked well down the Centuries but looks increasingly antiquated in the current day.

    While some Peers seem obsessed by the issue of election versus appointment, reform to modernise and make more transparent the work of the House seems to receive little public attention. Modernising the workings of the House does NOT mean the end of self-regulation. Indeed it will strengthen self-regulation as Peers will still regulate the way in which they work but in a more open, transparent manner than the current set up which seems a hangover from the aristocratic history or public school nature of the Chamber.

    • Twm O'r Nant
      27/01/2011 at 8:21 am

      a hangover from the aristocratic history or public school nature of the Chamber.
      There may not be that many career plumbers or electricians, and if there are, they would be found as former convenors of the Labour party.

      On the subject of AV giving advantage to LDP,
      I wonder whether that would bring an LDP/Lab coalition any closer?

  6. Carl.H
    25/01/2011 at 5:15 pm

    Lady D`Souza may find that this:

    “Lord Taylor said it had been a common practice among peers to claim for fake journeys and enter expenses claims with a false address as a main residence, and he believed it was acceptable to do this provided there was a “family connection” with the property.”

    Brings the House into disrepute along with the overwhelming belief of the public that too many got away with it and it may still be happening. I don`t think I`m in a minority when I state I believe what Lord Taylor said.

    To talk of self-regulation in the light of the expenses scandal is absurd, unless one is stating also that Lord Taylor’s words were true.

  7. toy boy
    25/01/2011 at 7:46 pm

    Baroness Murphy I agree Lord Soley should realise that his party is in opposition now cannot always get its way. Plus after second reading the question is proposed that the bill be committed to a committee of the whole house. Not part of the bill but the entire bill. The house has voted to take the whole bill into committee and if Labour peers had a problem they should have tried to split the bill then not after the vote was taken.

  8. Matt
    25/01/2011 at 8:39 pm

    The whole package of the bill does not disadvantage any particular party. It is expected that Labour and the Lib Dems will gain seats from AV; it is also expected that the Conservatives will gain seats from their reduction and equalisation.

  9. Bedd Gelert
    25/01/2011 at 9:52 pm

    This must be one of the rare occasions when I find myself agreeing with Lord Soley..

    Baroness Murphy is right that this is not helpful to the cause of the Lords, but some issues are far too big to be decided by back-room deals between two parties.

    Then again, we went to war on the say-so of one man, so what do I know ?

  10. Bedd Gelert
    25/01/2011 at 10:05 pm

    p.s. After the Boundary Commission changes in the Labour years, I do think that it ill behoves them to preach too many lessons about the dangers of gerrymandering…

    People in glass houses, and all that…

    Of course, I am not referring specifically to Lords Soley or Falconer, who I’m sure have a more high-minded concern with fairness on behalf of the average voter uppermost in their considerations…

  11. Senex
    25/01/2011 at 10:07 pm

    The only winners in the AV stakes are the LDP. Secondary votes will be rolled up to boost their number of MPs. This is why there is no real enthusiasm from Labour or the Tories. Both are working in concert to time out the bill as it will matter little to them? The boundary changes should AV be rejected will put Labour to a disadvantage but they offer no scientific evidence of this.

    One thing that does strike me is the general lack of awareness or enthusiasm about AV amongst the public as demonstrated in the Electoral Commissions report on the proposed referendum question.

    If the main parties are not interested then perhaps a paper by Essex University might throw some light on the debate. I have looked at various other published examples of AV and quite a few of them say incorrectly that the candidate with the lowest count will have their votes redistributed amongst the higher levels. They should say that the secondary choice counts will be redistributed amongst the higher levels.

    Table 11 in [1] gives the simulated AV outcome of the 2010 General Election whilst Section 2 of the Commission note [2] suggests the outcome might be a rejection of AV through lack of awareness or interest by the public. This suits both main parties just fine.

    Ref: [1] Simulating the Effects of the Alternative Vote in the
    2010 UK General Election. David Sanders [et al] Jul 3, 2010
    [2] Referendum on the UK Parliamentary Voting System.

  12. Gareth Howell
    26/01/2011 at 5:00 pm

    though it is hard to see why 600 MPs can’t do for Britain what 435 Representatives do for the US)

    600 for 60m or 435 for 300m? It is surely a question of competence.

    I am quite sure that the reduction in small voter base Welsh seats is a proper thing to do, given the Welsh assembly.

    I am also sure that the job of the opposition is to oppose, even if it means sharp practice with previous policies! Labour opposition including Clive,LS, I notice, are doing their job.

  13. Matt
    26/01/2011 at 11:20 pm

    But Senex, what exactly is wrong with a system wherby the third party is not so excessively under-represented??

    • Senex
      27/01/2011 at 8:09 pm

      Matt: Under FPtP the LDP is under represented but then so is the government because they have less than 50% of the vote. What we need to do is get our heads around AV politics and voter discretion.

      This government is an explicit coalition not possible under AV.

      Even under AV it is unlikely that the LDP would be voted into government. What is more likely is the LDP secondary vote would be rolled up in implicit coalition to support either of the two main parties to produce a government with a workable majority. This view is supported in Table 11 of David Sanders paper linked above.

      Here though is the paradox: the LDP exerts power in explicit coalition that they would be unable to exert under implicit coalition. What came first the chicken or the egg? The whole object of AV is to deliver legitimate government with at least 50% of the vote. This is the view of both LDP and Labour but not the Tories.

      What’s not clear to me is just what would happen if everybody chose only to make first preference votes. I suspect this scenario would produce explicit coalition but would it be legitimate?

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