Nick Clegg’s statement on House of Lords Reform. My thoughts to follow. I however expect people care more about what Nick said than what I think but ho hum…
I support an elected House of Lords because I believe that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those who have to obey the laws of the land. That is democracy – and it is what people rightly expect from their politics in the 21st Century.
When the Liberal Democrats came into Government, I knew that creating a democratic Lords would not be straightforward. This cause has long been blocked by an establishment resistant to change and by the vested interests who benefit from maintaining the power of political patronage, while keeping the power of people out.
However, Lords reform was in each party’s manifesto. It was written into the Coalition Agreement – without argument or controversy. And I had hoped that, with enough compromise and cross-party involvement we could build a consensus delivering it once and for all.
After the election I convened cross-party talks. The Government then published a draft bill and white paper with a clear commitment from myself and the Prime Minister to hold the first elections to the Lords in 2015.
We then established a joint committee, of both Houses, to scrutinise our proposals. We amended the Bill once the Joint Committee reported – taking on the majority of their changes. And, last month, in a historic vote an overwhelming majority of MPs backed an elected House of Lords during the Bill’s second reading.
However, despite these painstaking efforts the Labour party and Conservative backbenchers united to block any further progress, preventing government from securing a timetable motion without which the Bill effectively becomes impossible to deliver.
At that point, the Prime Minister said he needed more time, over the summer, to persuade his MPs and I, of course, agreed to that reasonable request. Unfortunately, the PM has confirmed to me, since then, that an insufficient number of his MPs have been persuaded to support the Bill.
In my discussions with the Labour Party leadership, they have made it clear that: while they continue to back Lords reform in principle. They are set on blocking it in practice.
Supporting the ends, but – when push comes to shove – obstructing the means.
I invited Ed Miliband to propose the number of days that Labour believe is necessary for consideration of the Bill. He declined to do so. Instead he confirmed Labour would only support individual closure motions – which could bog down parliament for months.
Regrettably Labour is allowing short-term political opportunism to thwart longterm democratic change.
So, after a long process – almost two and a half years – we do not have the Commons majority needed to ensure this Bill progresses through Parliament. It is obvious that the Bill’s opponents would now seek to inflict on it a slow death: ensuring Lords reform consumes an unacceptable amount of parliamentary time.
Clearly, it would be wrong for me to allow Parliament to be manipulated in this way not least at a time when there is so much else for us to concentrate on.
So I can confirm today that we do not intend to proceed with the Bill in this parliament. The government will make a full statement on this – to parliament – as soon as it returns in September.
To modernisers and campaigners, let me say this: I am as disappointed as you that we have not delivered an elected Lords this time around. But Lords Reform has always been a case of two steps forward, one step back.
And my hope is that we will return to it, in the next Parliament emboldened by the overwhelming vote in favour of our Bill at second reading.
An unelected House of Lords flies in the face of democratic principles and public opinion. It makes a mockery of our claim to be the mother of all democracies. And – even if you put all of that to one side – the ever increasing size of the Lords makes it an unsustainable chamber. It cannot keep growing; reform cannot be forever ducked.
As you know, an elected House of Lords was part of the Coalition Agreement: a fundamental part of the contract that keeps the coalition parties working together in the national interest.
A contract not just to each other, but a set of commitments we have made, collectively, to the British people.
My party has held to that contract even when it meant voting for things that we found difficult. The Liberal Democrats are proving ourselves to be a mature and competent party of Government and I am proud that we have met our obligations.
But the Conservative party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken.
Clearly I cannot permit a situation where Conservative rebels can pick and choose the parts of the contract they like, while Liberal Democrat MPs are bound to the entire agreement.
Coalition works on mutual respect; it is a reciprocal arrangement, a two-way street. So I have told the Prime Minister that when, in due course, parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election I will be instructing my party to oppose them.
When part of a contract is broken, it is normal to amend that contract in order then to move on.
Lords reform and boundaries are two, separate parliamentary bills but they are both part of a package of overall political reform. Delivering one but not the other would create an imbalance – not just in the Coalition Agreement, but also in our political system.
Lords reform leads to a smaller, more legitimate House of Lords. Boundary changes lead to a smaller House of Commons, by cutting the number of MPs. If you cut the number of MPs without enhancing the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Lords all you have done is weaken parliament as a whole, strengthen the executive and its overmighty government that wins.
So, for these reasons, I have decided, reluctantly to push the pause button on these controversial parliamentary reforms.
Throughout this process my aim has always been too honour the Coalition Agreement in full – no more, no less. I stood ready – and stand ready – to deliver reforms that are controversial for my party because that is part of a wider, reciprocal arrangement.
That is why, for instance, in a last ditch attempt to keep both sides of the bargain intact, I suggested a solution that would have allowed us to progress with both reforms: a referendum on Lords Reform on election day in 2015, with first elections to the Lords taking place in 2020, while deferring boundary changes to 2020 too.
That would have been in keeping with the Coalition Agreement – in which neither policy had a set timetable. But this offer was not accepted.
So we must now restore balance to the Coalition Agreement, allowing us to draw a line under these events and get on with the rest of our Programme for Government.
My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I remain focused on the urgent task that brought the Coalition together: rescuing, repairing and rebalancing our economy.
And, just as we are determined that this Government delivers economic reform, we are determined to deliver social renewal too.
There are many things that brought me into politics. Many things which animate my party: political reform is one. A fairer tax system is another. Internationalism. The environment. Civil liberties.
But the thing I care about most – the central purpose of the Liberal Democrats in this government – is to build a fairer society. A more socially mobile society, where a person’s opportunities do not depend on the circumstances of their birth, where every individual has the chance to flourish.
We will continue with that critical work. We will continue to anchor this government firmly in the centre ground.
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