Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg last week appeared before the Constitution Committee as part of its inquiry into the process of constitutional change. You can watch the session here or read the transcript here. He was asked about the Government’s proposals for the future of the House of Lords. I pursued him on the implications for the Parliament Act and I am still trying to make sense of his answer.
I pointed out that the Parliament Act 1911 was passed explicitly for the purpose of asserting the primacy of an elected House over an unelected House. If the second chamber is elected, does that not then destroy the justification for the Parliament Act? The Deputy PM accepted that what I said was correct as a matter of historical record – ‘of course, that is a matter of record and fact rather than opinion’ – but then went on to say ‘I am not sure that therefore means it follows that, if one changes the composition of the House of Lords, there is an automatic knock-on effect on the status of those Acts and coventions.’ When I pursued him as to the rationale for retaining the Parliament Act, he said ‘Because it is the basis upon which you have the division of labour of powers, which serves us well and which we are not seeking to disturb or overturn.’ The transcript continues:
“Lord Norton of Louth: But it is based on one House being an unelected House.
Nick Clegg: Well, as I say, I think there is a slight distinction between the genesis of the Parliament Acts themselves in 1911 and 1949 and the manner in which they have now become the organising principles by which the distinction between the two Houses is widely and commonly understood. I think that stands, and it stands regardless of the historical circumstances in which they were created in the first place.”
As far as I understand it, he believes that the Act passed to assert the primacy of an elected House over an unelected House can continue even when the second House is elected because, er, well….. ? As an academic colleague observed, it is the sort of question one would have expected to be asked, yet one that appeared to take the Deputy PM by surprise.