It is so rare that the words “consensus” and “Lords reform” appear in the same sentence that I must report immediately on a very informative discussion in a House committee room on Tuesday evening.
Billed as “The Steel Bill and Beyond “ this featured first a dialogue between Dr Meg Russell (of the Constitution Unit at UCL and the foremost academic observer of this part of Parliament) and Lord Steel of Aikwood (known to most of us as David). The latter was the original progenitor of the Steel/Byles Bill which obtained its Second Reading last Friday. The two of them discussed the possibility that retiring Peers could – under this Bill – seek election to the Commons. David described this as “fanciful”: Meg believed it to be a strong possibility, and hoped for amendment to require at least a four year cooling-off period, as provided for by various reports, draft Bills and even the Government’s 2012 Bill.
It would be unfair to ascribe views to named colleagues, but the subsequent discussion had a consistent theme. There was general agreement that the Steel/Byles Bill was “no big deal” and that it was, in a sense, only a temporary piece of house-keeping tidy up. In the words of one shrewd participant it was a “controlled experiment”, whose results would inform the next stage of reform.
Of course, there was no unanimity on what might happen next, let alone what we all hoped for and when this might occur. I personally expect the next Government (unless there is a dramatic swing to the Right in the 2015 House of Commons) to respect the huge Second Reading majority (and big majorities in all three Parties) for the 2012 Bill, and to proceed from there with comprehensive reform. If you believe in the primacy of the Commons you cannot simply ignore that vote. That would sort Meg’s perceived problem before it had become insidious. Others will have a different agenda but nobody in the room on Tuesday appeared to think that the Steel/Byles Bill was the end of the road.
That was the consensus view: whether incremental or more comprehensive, the process of reform goes on. Although Dr Chris Ballinger (author of ‘The House of Lords 1911-2011: A Century of Non-Reform’) concluded that “seeking a perfect reform through consensus is a fast-track to inertia” this must be encouraging. Gone is the view that the Steel/Byles Bill is a substitute for more substantial modernisation. Will this new mood influence the three manifestos for next year?