Steel bill returns: Nice new Lords you’ve got there. Be a shame if something happened to them…

Lord Steel of Aikwood, former Liberal leader and perennial thorn in the side of the government and Nick Clegg, is shortly to begin his latest bout of guerrilla war against the government on House of Lords reform. He has a bit of a history on that front.

Way back in 2007, Lord Steel of Aikwood introduced a bill that was the product of a cross-party group to ensure that potentially very difficult wholesale reform of the House of Lords  (Labour promised it for 2001) didn’t obscure the need for short-term ‘housekeeping’ measures. These included kicking convicted criminals out of the Lords (same as the House of Commons does), allowing for the retirement of peers, the ending of hereditary by-elections and taking patronage out of the hands of the prime minister by putting the Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis. These reforms were and are widely supported in the Lords and wouldn’t get in the way of further reform. The bill died on the order paper after second reading that year, the way most private members’ bills do.

Later that year in the next session, Lord Steel reintroduced his bill, this time much earlier in the session. That meant it made it to committee stage in 2008, but hereditary peers including the Earl of Caithness talked the bill out and it never got the chance to progress further.

Early in the session after that (late 2008 by now), the bill was reintroduced yet again. In second reading, Lord Steel stated his belief that the subject of the bill was not appropriate for a private members’ bill – the intention was to spur the government into taking up the bill. Support was more vocal, including from the chair of the Lords Appointments Commission. This time, a clause had been added to remove members who never attended the House. The bill reached committee in March 2009, and Lord Steel tried a new tactic: he proposed an amendment A1 which described the purpose of the bill which would let their Lordships come to a view on whether it wanted to see the measures happen. The House managed to agree the amendment only after other amendments were withdrawn by the hereditaries Lord Selsdon and Leader of the Opposition Lord Strathclyde. Again, the bill died on the order paper.

In the final session of the Labour government, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill was brought forward with provisions in it for ending the hereditary by-elections, suspending and expelling peers from the House of Lords and even allowing for the resignation of peers. Since the Labour government didn’t take the time to pass the bill through the Lords earlier in the session, which they quite easily could have done, Lord Steel said that if the measures pass into law he would again introduce his bill. In the dying hours of the 2005 Parliament, the period known as ‘wash-up’, bills essentially can be talked out. This means they have to get through by consensus. Lo and behold, the provisions for reforming the House of Lords were removed from the bill before it passed.

Then along came the coalition, with their plans for wholesale constitutional reform, including considering electing the House of Lords. Early on in the session, Lord Steel put a motion down on the order paper to let the House again state its support for the interim reforms of the Steel bill – and to let him express his growing impatience. Lord Strathclyde, now Leader of the House, said that he didn’t want the bill to pass and would rather see the government’s reform happen instead, despite the widespread expectation in the upper house that said reform was not going to happen under the coalition. Lord Steel’s motion passed easily, albeit on a low turnout.

One of the coalition’s ideas was to have an double length session so that their controversial legislative agenda could get through the House. Lord Steel took his opportunity, and guided his bill through second reading. Of course, the bill had never passed committee before and so Lord Steel used a little parliamentary trick – he moved a motion to let the uncontroversial clauses be debated first and withdraw the provisions creating a statutory Appointments Commission. This prevented the many, many amendments to that part of the bill even being debated and hence leading to the bill being talked out.

In the end, the Appointments Commission was removed at Report – along with the ending of the hereditary by-elections; a deal made to ensure its passage. After its filleting by the hereditaries, the bill passed the House without further damage. Unfortunately, it lay gathering dust in the Commons as interminable committees considered the government’s larger draft bill to substantially elect the House of Lords.

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. It looked as though the bill was going to die on the order paper yet again; this time in the House of Commons.

It was in the dying days of the longest parliamentary session since the Glorious Revolution that Lord Steel saw an opportunity. In preparation for the 2012 Olympics, the government was fast-tracking the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill 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, effectively killing the bill.

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.

The still-gutted bill was reintroduced by Lord Steel and duly was quickly progressed through the Lords, where-after it sat in the Commons, again doing little more than adorning some clerk’s table. Some wind.

As the government’s supertanker of a Lords Reform bill was holed beneath the water line after a massive rebellion by those against electing the Lords (including most of the Tory party) the spectre of wholesale Lords reform went down with it. In the mean time, supporters of the interim reforms in the Steel bill again began to lobby for the bill’s passage, despite its months sitting and doing nothing. The bill was taken up by Eleanor Laing, Tory MP and fervent believer in an appointed Lords, but didn’t get allocated for second reading until this Friday.

Being so late in the session, it has little chance of passing into law on its own. It appears that Lord Steel is prepared to (again) throw his toys out of the pram, this time on a new and more dangerous level. He has proposed a motion for the day before the bill is debated which effectively prevents any new peers from sitting and voting in the House of Lords until peers can retire, creating a rather large incentive to pass the Steel Bill:

Notwithstanding the normal practice of the House, this House resolves that no introductions of new Peers shall take place until the recommendation in paragraph 67 of the First Report of the Leader’s Group on Members Leaving the House, chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral (HL Paper 83, Session 2010–12), has been followed.

With the House at near breaking point with an unprecedented nearly five hundred daily attenders in a House designed for half that, office space is at a premium and seats at Oral Questions or in the dining room are worth their weight in gold. To say the atmosphere in the Lords is angry would seriously understate it*. Whether they will go so far as to vote in favour of a moratorium on the introduction of new peers is another question altogether, though you’d assume Lord Steel has canvassed members about the motion.

Of course Labour’s front bench is trying to help the government by proposing an amendment which would simply call on all parties to exercise restraint in appointments instead; that may well soak up some of the anger directed at the government, but we don’t know how much. Certainly, the government will not be impressed if this passes.

Thing is, the government sees the appointment of peers as its prerogative (which it technically is). Sure, peers are angry, but how angry will the government be with the Lords parking tanks on their lawn? Would the Lords risk the potential backlash from a frustrated government who want to appoint fifty new peers this year and a hundred more by 2015? Would they create a backlog that would swamp the House to an even greater extent instead, knowing that such a moratorium could not continue forever?

Either way, Lord Steel is wilier than most, and presumably he knows what he is doing. Hopefully, anyway. We don’t want to end up with an even more dysfunctional upper house than we have now.

*I was really looking forward to a piece on the Westminster Hour about it yesterday, but it seems it got bumped in favour of more discussion on the Nick Clegg/Lord Rennard scandal.
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