A Tinkering on the Red Benches

The House of Lords Reform Act 2014, which received the royal assent in May, might appear by its short title to signal a constitutional reform of some magnitude. If so, however, the appearance would be deceptive. As the sponsor of the Bill in the House of Commons (Mr Dan Byles, a backbench
Conservative MP) was at pains to emphasise, the legislation effects only very modest reforms. What has been achieved is no more than a tinkering with the seats on the red benches.

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Mr Byles’s Bill was nearly identical to a Bill introduced by Lord Steel of Aikwood (a former leader of the Liberal Party), that had passed in the House of Lords in 2012-13 but did not progress in the
Commons. On this occasion, perhaps a little paradoxically, it was a Private Members’ Bill introduced first in the Commons that proved to be the vehicle for success.

There are essentially three provisions in the Bill. Section 1 enables peers to resign or retire from membership of the House, whereas at present the honour endures, enjoyed by most, but for a few
becoming an unwelcome “life sentence”. Section 2 provides that there will be power to remove
absentee members who, without having been granted leave of absence, do not attend the House at all throughout a whole session. Thirdly, section 3 provides for disqualification of a member convicted of an offence and sentenced to imprisonment indefinitely or for more than a year, to be automatic when the conviction is in the United Kingdom, but at the House’s discretion when it is abroad. The last change would bring the House roughly into line with the Commons. Rather notoriously, three
members of the House (Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, and Lord Black of Crossharbour) have incurred convictions that would have disqualified them from the
Commons, had they been MPs. Emily Thornberry, conveying the Opposition’s support for the Bill in the Commons, said that her only regret was that the provision on disqualification was not
retrospective.

These modest improvements are hard to oppose, but obviously do little to satisfy the need for substantial reform. They will at best make a small dent in the numbers of a second chamber which is larger than the first, in a legislature exceeded in size only by that in the People’s Republic of China. The membership of the House (as accessed on 20 August) stands at 774, exclusive of another 54 who are currently ineligible, mainly through applications for leave of absence, and an additional 22 life peers announced by Downing Street in August, who will be admitted shortly. Nor, obviously, will these modest reforms dismantle the unattractive bases of heredity and political patronage that in large part account for the present composition of the House. However, following the failure of Mr Nick Clegg’s Bill in 2012, it would seem that substantial reform, or at least another attempt at it, will have to wait until the next parliamentary term.

Incidentally, it is interesting to notice that Mr Byles had secured sufficient Commons time by virtue of a high placing in the annual ballot for introducing Private Members’ Bills, there being thirteen
Friday sittings in a session allocated for consideration of these under Standing Orders, No 14(9). Mr Byles was fifth in the ballot, and very short Bills introduced by the third-placed and fourth-placed MPs also became Acts in 2014. By contrast, the Bills introduced by the first-placed James Wharton (Conservative), on promising a referendum on EU membership in 2017, and by the second-placed Paul Blomfield (Labour), on payday lenders, sank into failure, the first bogged down by wrecking amendments in the House of Lords, and the second, lacking support from the Government (which had other plans for tackling the issue), failing to clear the Commons. These outcomes, besides
showing the importance of Government support, remind us that the House of Lords cannot be taken for granted by any party nowadays, and perhaps also suggest that Private Members’ Bills stand the best chance of succeeding when they are highly focused and relatively uncontroversial.

(20 August 2014)

This blog post was written by Colin Munro, Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Edinburgh, who regularly teaches on the Law Study Support sessions.

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