The Govermment’s White Paper and House of Lords Reform Draft Bill got a poor reception in both Houses. The media have been underwhelmed by the Government’s proposals and decided that they did not really merit being treated as headline news. This is hardly surprising given that the White Paper really added little to what had been covered in previous White Papers on the subject and left a great deal open to further discussion.
One fundamental problem is that the White Paper treats the House of Lords as existing in some political vacuum, capable of carrying on as now – same powers, essentially same relationship with the Commons – regardless of any change in how its membership is selected. The current powers and conventions of the House derive from the fact that the second chamber is unelected. As the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the Commons noted in its report last week, Seminar on the House of Lords: Outcomes, ‘The existing conventions governing relations between the two Houses will not survive in their current form if the Upper House is given democratic legitimacy’.
It is also difficult to see an elected House being content with the powers that derive from an unelected House. The Parliament Act 1911 was enacted precisely for the purpose of ensuring the primacy of the elected House over the unelected House. If the second chamber is elected, then the rationale for the Parliament Act disappears. As I pointed out to the Deputy Prime Minister when he was before the Constitution Committee yesterday, an elected second chamber may not seek to be co-equal with the first chamber, but it can demand more powers than those held by the present House.
There may be a case for the Commons not having primacy, but if the general view is that it should retain the primacy that it presently has, then these proposals are going to be difficult to sustain. Even one Liberal Democrat supporter of an elected chamber came up to me after the statement on Tuesday to declare: ‘What a dog’s breakfast’.