The Lords reforms the peers want

In contrast to the governments draft House of Lords bill, one set of reforms has got the provisional green light from their Lordships. Back in the Spring, the report of a Leader’s Group on Working Practices was published. It was prompted by three reports by senior backbench peers in the dying days of the last Parliament, and so the new Leader of the House, Lord Strathclyde, was under pressure to put together a committee of some kind to look at ideas.

The Goodlad Report (debated here, with vid here) has some very interesting proposals, the most interesting of which I have repeated here:

  1. The criteria for Private Notice Questions (the Lords equivalent of an Urgent Question, though for less time – it works out as a longer extra Oral Question) should be interpreted more liberally by the Lord Speaker
  2. Renewed consideration should be given to enabling ministers in another House to answer questions or make statements in the House they are not members of
  3. There should be a presumption that all bills embodying important changes in policy should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, particularly constitutional bills; where bills have not been subject to wide consultation, green or white papers, that presumption should become a requirement. If the government does not publish the bill in draft, they should come to the House and explain why
  4. There should be a Select Committee on Legislative Standards, preferably a joint committee studying all bills but if not then a Lords committee studying bills that are introduced in the Lords, which will report on bills before second reading as to whether they meet adequate standards in bill preparation; if not, it is up to the House to decide whether to decline a second reading. They would also flag up any clauses not considered by the House of Commons to assist members in scrutiny of legislation
  5. The introduction of an evidence-taking stage for bills starting in the House of Lords, particularly for bills which have not had an extensive consultation period; either a one-day hearing from the government or a full fourteen-day evidence taking public bill committee (followed by recommittal to Grand Committee or Committee of the Whole House for amendment) dependent on the significance of the bill and how much consultation it had
  6. A rule should be established that all government bills (besides constitutional and emergency legislation) go to Grand Committee rather than Committee of the Whole House – this enables more time to be spent on controversial bills in Committee of the Whole House and allows for greater scrutiny in a more informal environment
  7. Increased time for Private Members’ Bills to go to Grand Committee after other business has concluded on Tuesday through Thursday
  8. A Select Committee on Post-Legislative Scrutiny should be established to review up to four Acts a year
  9. A resolution should be passed by the House asserting not only its right to vote down delegated legislation, but its intention in doing so only to delay and make the government reconsider; a second identical statutory instrument would not be voted down
  10. A House of Lords Backbench Business Committee should be established and should not only allocate questions for short debate, but also resolutions of the House to enable members to state an opinion on the issues of the day
  11. An obligation should be placed on ministers to place written replies in Hansard to all points raised in debates if not answered orally
  12. Two new cross-cutting Select Committees should be set up – topics I have heard bandied about are infrastructure, public service or welfare – and Select Committees should elect their own chairmen

This is somewhat equivalent in magnitude to the original Wright Committee recommendations in the Commons, and will perhaps have a bigger effect than the Wright reforms did because of the greater willingness of the House of Lords to assert itself over government in the division lobbies.

The House of Lords’ Procedure Committee is currently converting these recommendations into Standing Orders (they will meet on the 24th of October) and paragraphs in the Companion to Standing Orders and hopefully it won’t be long before the House of Lords votes on them. I suspect the vast majority of the major recommendations will pass, though probably not all.

It’s interesting to compare the Goodlad Report to the aforementioned Wright Report on reform of the House of Commons the other year, if for nothing else than to see where members see problems with their respective Houses – the emphasis in the House of Commons reforms on legislation was on improving the amount of scrutiny in current stages by enforcing time-limited speeches, the House of Lords on improving pre- and post-legislative scrutiny, increasing the advice peers get on committee, and rebalancing the amount of legislation going through the chamber itself. Both of these reports represent big changes in the way the Houses work and I expect both of them will have good results.

The reason why I suspect most will pass is that there is a strong feeling in the House that governments won’t let them reform themselves as seen by Lord Steel of Aikwood’s four-times-introduced House of Lords Reform Bill which governments have repeatedly refused to take up – last debated in a rather fractious committee stage yesterday (video here) where there was a small core of perhaps sixteen peers (against a House of, quite ludicrously, eight hundred) who were attempting to filibuster the bill.

The bill calls for modest reform of the House of Lords – running repairs, as Lord Steel has called them – whether or not the government’s own reform proposals (see below) get through by not replacing hereditary peers when they die, kicking out peers who have been served criminal sentences of more than a year, allowing peers to retire through legal means, and seriously diluting the prime minister’s patronage powers over Lords appointments.

As mentioned, while the government has brought forward its own package of reforms advocating either an 80% or 100% elected chamber, they are being given the widest possible berth by the government – pre-legislative scrutiny by a committee of 26 (!) legislators. This is for fear of the legislative war of attrition that will surely follow: a long and tortuous progress in both Houses with both major Commons parties heavily divided on reform and by far most peers in the Lords opposing it. It could easily run aground as the bill will cause major disruption to the government’s agenda in both Houses and will be seen by many as more trouble than it’s worth. The coalition agreement itself states only that they will bring forward proposals on House of Lords reform, not how each party in the coalition will vote on it.

Update 1: The first report of the procedure committee about converting the Goodlad proposals into the House’s rules has been published, but it’s only the very non-contentious reforms not the main proposals I talked about above. The proposed motions will be tabled soon, and I’ll update the post when they’re voted on for the sake of completeness.

Update 2: And the first batch of minor efficiency reforms has been voted on:

  • Transferring to the independent, elected Lord Speaker the role the government appointed Leader of the House has in advising the House which group (party, bishops, cross-bench, etc) should get the next supplementary question when disputes occur for a trial period: rejected 266-169
  • Ensuring that if a Secretary of State is in the upper chamber then there is a monthly twenty-minute question time: passed unanimously
  • Making questioners ask the full question rather than ‘the question standing in [their] name on the order paper’ and limiting it to 25 words: rejected
  • Ending the practices of declaring trivial interests during question time and thanking questioners and minister for their questions/answers: passed unanimously
  • Allowing the minister to simply refer to an oral statement already given in the Commons without reading it out with the agreement of the usual channels if the relevant minister has finished the statement: passed unanimously
  • Limiting Questions for Short Debate (90-minute debates) to one-per-member on the list at any one time; they should indicate the date; removing them after six months if they are unasked; adding a warning to the Companion that the subjects for these debates should be limited in scope: passed unanimously
  • Allowing the House of Commons to be referred to by name rather than ‘the other place’ or ‘another place’: passed unanimously
  • Ending debates which ‘move for papers’ (allowing the mover to respond at the end of the debate) and instead ensuring all debates not ending in a vote should simply ask the House to ‘take note’, be short, be neutrally phrased and not subject to amendment: passed unanimously
  • Allowing members to refer to other members by simply their title as well as by the prefix ‘the noble lord/baroness/etc, the Lord X’ and to make it optional to add other prefixes such as the gallant lord: rejected 173-173
Update 3: The next batch have been voted on, with some substantial effectiveness reforms:
  • Extending the Grand Committee hours so that it may consider more legislation and hear oral statements on more days for a trial next session: passed unanimously
  • Stating that there should be an presumption in favour of all bills going to grand committee unless the usual channels agree: referred back 319-96
  • Written questions should be limited to 12 per week in addition to the current limit of six per day: passed unanimously
  • Two new investigative Select Committees to conduct a single specific inquiry as opposed to the stronger investigative Select Committees which set their own agenda which Goodlad proposed: passed unanimously
  • A post-legislative Select Committee on a particular act as opposed to a wide-ranging Select Committee to manage such post-legislative scrutiny as proposed by Goodlad: passed unanimously

It does look like the cross-party group has watered down some of the recommendations, and some of the Lords noted in debate that the groundwork to build up support for the full Goodlad reforms just wasn’t there which is a shame.

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