Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Rt Hon David Blunkett MP

I do not wish to repeat the evidence I submitted to the McKay Commission, where I gave both written and oral evidence. Suffice it to say that if you have the opportunity to access material, much of it (including an excellent submission by Vernon Bognador) is relevant to your deliberations.

I also will try to avoid complete repetition of my submission (oral evidence which is written up) to the Joint Committee of the two houses on the future of the House of Lords.

Can I confine myself therefore to three essential points?

The first is what is the purpose of the House of Lords?

The second, the relevance of the makeup of the House of Lords.

And the third, the muddled thinking in terms of the current bizarre Coalition agreement to reflect in the makeup of the House of Lords, the electoral fortunes of the political parties in 2010 (which does not constitute a manifesto commitment from any of the three major parties) and such a commitment being juxtaposed against the legislative proposals which were eventually withdrawn.

Purpose

It seems to me that the purpose of the House of Lords needs to be redefined in the light of other substantial constitutional changes and continuing debate in respect of Scotland’s relationship to the United Kingdom, the fluid situation in terms of the constitutional position and powers in Wales, the evolving situation of devolved powers to the Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland, and the UK’s relationship with the European Union.

As I deal with these issues at some substantial length in the McKay Commission, I do not intend to repeat myself here, except to say that the relationship of the Westminster Parliament to English local government and unaccountable but yet responsible bodies in the public arena in England are worthy of attention.

Above all, how the existing and likely future changes impact on the relationship between the Commons and the Lords?

A truly reforming government (or opposition) would be taking the question of reform of the House of Commons in the light of such substantial constitutional changes, alongside the reform of, and the purpose of the House of Lords.

Were such a more comprehensive view taken, it would be possible to deal with the “accusation” that the House of Lords is a “legislature” and “legislatures should be elected”. Whilst this might be seen as an extremely narrow view of democracy (which I will deal with under point 3), the way to deal with this is surely to ensure that is it the House of Commons that is clearly the legislature. The Commons and the Lords can both hold the Executive to account, deal with administrative and post-legislative scrutiny, Select Committee, Joint Committee, Inquiry and review functions.

Crucially, the House of Lords could take on pre-legislative scrutiny as a key role. This would not interfere with the role of thoroughly examining legislation coming from the Commons but would clearly streamline and speed up such a process when pre-legislative scrutiny had already taken place.

The Lords would then have the function of putting back to the Commons suggested changes (but unlike the present ping pong, rejection of Lords suggestions would complete the legislative process).

This of course would mean that the Business Managers would have to have a much clearer idea of their priorities and an entirely different approach to the legislative process. Detailed scrutiny would replace Bills starting in the House of Lords, although it would be perfectly feasible to have something that mirrored Private Members Legislation in terms of suggested changes being put to the Commons. After all, other designated “august” bodies have such a function including putting to the Commons Private Bills sponsored by amongst others, local authorities.

Makeup

I think there is widespread agreement that any second chamber should reflect the regions, nations, gender and profile of the United Kingdom. Over time, this is perfectly feasible in relation to the nominations from the main political parties, cross bench nominations and a much more pro active role for devolved elected bodies (Councils, as well as Parliament and Assemblies).

There is currently a distinction between “working Peers” and those nominated in respect of Honours, who are still expected to make a contribution. Greater definition and role for members of the House of Lords would be rational. Nomination of Peers as part of the Honours process could also be differentiated from those nominated to “serve in” the House of Lords. There is no logical reason why a separate category in relation to lifelong service in a whole range of areas of our life, should not be reflected in a Peerage without it necessitating a place in and powers accorded to, such individuals within the second chamber.

Existing membership of the House of Lords could be slimmed down in line with Lord Steel’s proposals (extended to incorporate ideas which have become known as “Steel-Plus”) and with positive backing rather than indifference or worse from the current Coalition Government, could be implemented speedily. In fact, slimming down could go much further by removing from a formal role all those who have not voted in more than 10% of divisions for three sessions out of the last five. They would of course remain Peers and could be allowed access to the restaurants and bars (but not offices, research and other working facilities). This would be commercially prudent.

Instead of (as I spell out in point 3 of this submission) a petulant refusal to accept reform, and therefore to continue expanding numbers in the House of Lords, a rational slimming down could take place in an intelligent fashion, and thereby enable the House of Lords to do its job effectively, to respect membership, offer acceptable accommodation and support services to do the job properly, and remove the absurd pressures which currently exist. In simple terms, to want and therefore to make possible to achieve, an effective second chamber.

Coalition Agreement

Having established that as part of the “reform” of the House of Lords, numbers would be slashed to 300 (later to 450), the Coalition now are set on expanding the numbers towards 850/900.

Having presented the proposition that in a “democracy” election is the only way of reflecting the will of the people, the Coalition put forward a proposition that there would be “open party lists” based on regional/national boundaries, on a proportional representation basis.

They decided that as the House of Lords should be “independent” and therefore not subject to the pressures which member of the House of Commons experience, it would be right to have fifteen year, non renewable terms. In other words, that there would not be direct accountability.

They suggested that “legitimacy” would be established by having the election. However, because effectively the main political parties would have elected from their list their first candidates in order of preference, the electorate would effectively be being asked to endorse what the political parties had already decided.

This brings us back to the proposition of the Coalition expanding the House of Lords in order to better “reflect” the outcome of the 2010 General Election, even though we are now substantially closer (two years to go) to the next General Election.

In other words, the previous proposition for “reform” was all about reflecting the outcome of the election within the parameters of the lists put up by the political parties. The only difference being, that under the “reform” proposition from the Coalition, this would be done in respect of future elections rather than retrospectively in respect of the last General Election!

“Legitimacy” would be achieved by asking the electorate to play along with the top down “political class” determining through their own priorities, the breakdown of political representation in the House of Lords, whilst leaving the electorate to determine the exact numbers by the number of votes cast.

If of course such a process conveyed “legitimacy”, it would do so at the expense of the House of Commons. Having established that it would not achieve accountability, we can only presume that the objective was to establish “consent” to the determination of the political elite, and therefore to ask the electorate to ratify what the party leadership (or if devolved, to their membership) had already determined.

That is why a nominated House of Lords with very clear terms of reference and therefore purpose, with a sensible and transparent system of nomination, and with a new and renewed relationship not only with the democratically elected House but with the new Constitutional Settlement, is not only more rational and therefore workable, but also a great deal more honest.

Of course, there are major issues about procedures, about the workings of the House of Lords, about ways in which the dignity and traditions of the Upper House can be maintained whilst bringing the day to day process into the 21st century. After all, respecting breadth of personal experience, of knowledge and perspective achieved through a lifetime of service or enterprise, should surely be valued rather than denigrated. With an ageing population, with a tendency to short termism and lack of “collective memory”, an understood and restricted mandate for a House of Lords which allows the reflection of an accumulated lifetime of wisdom, in my view is to be welcomed.

19 March 2013

Prepared 16th October 2013