I have been fascinated with the way words have been used – some would say misused – in the Lords Reform debates of recent weeks. No doubt both sides have been guilty. Some of the reformers have got very muddled up in their descriptions of the proposed electoral system. Some of the opponents have tried to label the Bill as “abolition”. If that is accurate, how would they differentiate these reforms from the total removal of the House, creating a unicameral Parliament ?
But, the most curious linguistic episode has been the sudden announcement from some opposing Peers that we are not “legislators” after all, and that therefore we can remain unelected, well-paid, political nominees for life.
I looked up “legislate” in the Oxford English Dictionary. “To perform the function of legislation; to make or enact laws.” One could argue it is only the Queen who “enacts” laws, since she has to give Royal Assent. But we know it is Parliament – both Houses – which “makes” the laws; we agree their ingredients, put them together, and form a product – just like any group of people “making” anything else.
Those of us who visit schools and colleges on behalf of the Lord Speaker carry with us excellent briefing material for the students, as I did last week. In this there are substantial references to “making laws” and to the “checking and changing laws”. If the fact that MPs have the last word, by a majority vote, means that are the only they are “legislators” then – strictly – perhaps it would only be the particular MPs who actually cast the winning votes who finally “legislate”. Of course this is nonsense; it is the institution of Parliament which legislates, and the Lords is an integral part of that process.
The opponents often talk of how effective the House is, passing its many amendments to Bills. Surely the House cannot be both effective at redrafting legislation, and incapable of making law. The argument is in equal measure hopelessly circular and desperately semantic.
Sit tight for further sound and fury in the Commons today, before we find out which MPs will stick to their promises and make progress. In the meantime, this Guardian editorial sums up my views well. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/09/house-of-lords-opportunity-reform-editorial