Steve Richards: Another botched attempt at Lords reform by the PM and his henchman

When Tony Blair feels compelled to make a reform for which he has little enthusiasm, he calls on Mr Straw
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The Independent Online

The Government makes another attempt to reform the House of Lords at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons, as far as it offers any reasons at all.

I make the assertion with confidence because when Tony Blair is genuinely keen on reforms he pursues them with a forensic focus. One of the myths about Labour's third term is that Mr Blair is merely a victim of events, buffeted around until his departure. On most fronts, the opposite is the case.

I was looking the other day at a transcript of his post-election Downing Street press conference in the summer of 2005. He outlined his objectives in some detail, the need to address anti-social behaviour, the importance of public service reforms in general and new measures for schools in particular, further changes to the criminal justice system.

One way or another, he has achieved what he set out to do. The substance might be contentious, but it is wrong to argue that Mr Blair had no sense of a clear policy agenda. His sense was well developed and sometimes too well developed. To his credit, he has not allowed the hysterical noises off to divert him.

But one notable policy absentee from Mr Blair's post-election ambitions was the urgent need for a partially elected House of Lords. He expressed no interest then in implementing such a sweeping change. Yet this was what the Government proposed yesterday in its White Paper. To be more precise, it was what the Leader of the House, Jack Straw, put forward in his White Paper. As Mr Straw accepts, a majority of the Cabinet probably favours a wholly elected second chamber.

When Tony Blair feels compelled to make a reform for which he has no great enthusiasm, he tends to call on the services of Mr Straw. During Labour's first term, Mr Straw was strongly opposed to a Freedom of Information Act. With a contorted logic, he became the minister assigned the task of drawing up the relevant legislation in order to limit its impact.

With his customary diligence, Mr Straw turned the Bill into the "Little Bit of Freedom of Information Act". But even he could not stop the Government from being hit by a double-whammy in which it was attacked for not providing more information and yet easily embarrassed by the amount of new information that was suddenly available.

I detect a similar pattern now. Both Mr Blair and Mr Straw have never in the past shown enthusiasm for an elected or partially elected second chamber. So Mr Blair summoned Mr Straw to come up with proposals for a partially elected Lords.

In his diaries, Robin Cook recalls vividly his attempts as Leader of the House to achieve a reform of the second chamber, and his despair at Mr Blair's attempts to maintain the status quo. Mr Cook recounted his feelings at a famous Prime Minister's Question Time in 2003, when Mr Blair came out against even a partially elected Lords, posing a still relevant question about whether MPs wanted a revising chamber or a rival chamber. Mr Cook noted that the Prime Minister had thrown "a big fat torpedo" into his hopes of change.

Mr Blair has reversed his torpedo now. Evidently, he feels a need to respond in some way to the so-called "cash-for-honours" investigation by making the second chamber more theoretically democratic. Perhaps he feels obliged to honour Labour's last manifesto, but the wording then was deliberately vague: "Labour believes that a reformed upper chamber must be effective, legitimate and more representative without challenging the primacy of the House of Commons". In other words, in 2005 Mr Blair was keeping all options open, including the one of doing virtually nothing.

Mr Straw entered the fray, therefore facing prime ministerial scepticism, a divided cabinet, a split parliamentary Labour Party and opposition to change from many Labour peers. He was doing so at a time when familiar allegations about cash for honours were moving from an area of legitimate political controversy to one in which assertions of criminality were being made.

In such a bleakly shapeless context, Mr Straw has done the best he could do, but it will not get him very far. He seeks resolution of the eternal debate about the composition of the Lords by compelling MPs to decide one way or another on the proportion of elected and appointed peers. When Mr Cook had an attempt at reform in 2003, all the options were voted down in the Commons. This will not be possible if Mr Straw gets his way. He has also sought consensus by consulting widely.

In addition, he has ensured that the disciplines of a party system would function to some extent in a partially elected Lords by proposing that candidates were selected through party lists. In the current anti- politics culture, where political parties are regarded in some quarters as sinister, this will be unpopular. But there has to be a degree of party discipline if governments are to govern and opposition parties are to oppose with coherence, although I am beginning to wonder whether some voters and newspapers would prefer no democratic government at all.

In spite of these efforts Mr Straw's attempts to navigate around his own previous wariness and the conflicting aspirations of others are rightly doomed. The phrase 'dog's breakfast' came up several times during his statement in the Commons yesterday, and that was just from Labour MPs. I cannot recall a set of proposals over which there is so much contention.

Take a deep breath as I list the areas of disagreement. There is raging controversy over the method in which MPs will decide on the composition of the upper house, the actual composition of a reformed Lords, the appropriate voting system if part of the second chamber is elected, the timing of elections to a second chamber, the powers of patronage in relation to those who are still appointed, the role of Bishops and the precise remit of a reformed Lords. Apart from that, Mr Straw got the thumbs up.

His White Paper, published yesterday, provides a useful outline of previous attempts at reform, international comparisons and a compelling narrative over the latest search for a consensus. But it lacks an analysis of what impact an elected element would have on the Lords and the Commons, and the degree to which this would make for better government, rather than for a more confused form of accountability.

The Lords have been plucked out of a much wider context and treated as if it can be dealt with alone. Complex constitutional reform cannot, and should not, be done in this way. Mr Straw can hope in these reforms to abolish finally the hereditary peers, introduce a retirement age for peers and establish more formalised scrutiny when new ones are appointed. That would be progress. The rest marks another confused leap in the dark.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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