Lord Steel of Aikwood, former Liberal leader and perennial thorn in the side of both government and Nick Clegg, first proposed his set of reforms many years ago. They involved the ending of hereditary by-elections, the removal of prime ministerial patronage and establishment of a statutory appointments commission, the introduction of an ability to retire and the exclusion of criminals. He argued for these as essential running repairs so that the repeated failure to get wider Lords reform would not damage the workings of the chamber itself.
As is the case with private members bills that offend a significant minority, threats were made to talk the bill out completely. This time round, thanks to some low cunning on Lord Steel’s part, the bill didn’t die and was merely severely filleted by some hereditary peers. Only retirement and excluding criminals remain in the bill which then sat collecting dust with the rest of the private members bills in the Commons.
For months, peers nagged and poked the Leader of the House of Lords about this. Pointed remarks were spoken, disappointing harrumphs were made and snarky letters were written.
And then, an opportunity appeared! Lord Steel of Aikwood, himself no stranger to parliamentary procedure, saw that the government was expediting the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill [HL] so that parliament could prorogue on the 1st of May. And so he threw his toys out of the pram (his words, not mine) and stated on the floor of the House that if the government didn’t take him and the House of Lords more seriously he and much of the House could easily turn to Sabbatarianism and find three hundred amendments to table.
Needless to say, the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, set up a meeting with Lord Steel and they arranged for his cut-down bill to be expedited through the Lords early next session and to be given a ‘fair wind’* by the government in the Commons. Crisis averted, parliament was able to prorogue on-time last Tuesday.
If as seems likely the bill is passed it would be no mean feat. Given that the trimmed proposals are necessary no matter what the results of the wider Lords reform agenda, it would have a lasting impact.
This leaves the two most controversial measures – the statutory appointments commission and the ending of hereditary by-elections – to be dealt with in the up and coming House of Lords Reform bill. Opposition to Lords reform is beginning to coalesce around these reforms alongside others – see the Alternative Report from the joint committee dissenters.
It’s still possible for the dogged Lord Steel or his allies to force the government to compromise in the coming parliamentary quagmire that is electing the Lords, where a final bill has still yet to be agreed on and many still want it killed. It’s not difficult to imagine that Nick Clegg may need some Lords reform to tout to his base and that might very well be what he’s left with.