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Jan. 24th, 2011

Apart from the prospect of a rather awkward atmosphere in the chamber if Leader of the House Lord Strathclyde is in, this week threatens to be exactly the same as last (here, if you missed the “excitement”): if not another 21-hour sitting tonight contemplating the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill then certainly a good 12, and the same again on Wednesday. Last week the Labour Lords Front Bench was making public overtures to the government and being equally publicly snubbed, while negotiations between party leaders also got nowhere fast.

The House of Lords is a revising chamber. Its primary job is to look over what has emerged from the Commons and see if it makes a scrap of sense. Usually legislation just needs a bit of finessing, improvements are suggested, the bill is sent back down the corridor to the Commons and everyone can sod off home.[1] A more contentious bill will probably involve some horse-trading—the opposition really hate pet government policy G but they’re prepared to give ground on it if the government just let it go about policy H—but at the end of the process there has to be a deal. The House isn’t allowed to impede the will of the government. (Of course, once it becomes mainly or entirely elected there’s a racing certainty that at some point the post-Lords will successfully do exactly that and the two Houses could find themselves locked in mortal combat, but I’m sure that fervent Lords reformers have a rock-solid plan for when that happens.[2])

Only very occasionally does this process actually break down. It seemed that it might come close in 2005 over the 42-day imprisonment without trial that Tony Blair threw his weight behind, apparently inspired—though his was a pretty limp impersonation—by America’s retreat from sections of its own constitution in the name of “terrorists at the gates”.[3] For all the government’s determination on the issue, there were enough lords with backgrounds in law and human rights to spot the problems with unilaterally overturning legal rights, presumptions of innocence and similar piffling details, and there was unease across the political parties as well as among the independent cross-benchers. When the Lords and the Commons reached deadlock, the argument was between the two Houses. When the deadlock was broken it was because a deal was done, and the Lords conceded that they couldn’t justify standing in the way of the government any longer.

In the case of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituency Bill, though, a deal was done even before the House got its own copies. The problem is that it was done between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Two parties with such different priorities, locked into a coalition, have had to do some really cut-throat negotiating in order for them both to get something that even resembles what they want, a process that leaves them with a pretty delicate agreement at the end of it and no room for the slightest manoeuvre to accommodate the opposition. No-one wants to give much ground when they’re introducing legislation, but usually everyone recognises that to some degree they will have to. Not this government, though; the bill is perfect just as it is, and nothing is going to stand in its way.

One of the most unpleasant aspects of this bill is that, as with much of the legislation hurtling down the coalition’s pipe towards us, some of its sweeping changes are based on the kind of evidence that in other circumstances would lead to vast compensation payouts and photographers being sprayed with champagne outside the Old Bailey. This is exactly the kind of back-of-napkin legislating that the Lords are there to see off. Almost everyone in the chamber, for example, agrees that the number of MPs and the constituencies that they represent should be reformed, but only the government are suggesting that the process should be as simple as saying “We’ll get rid of 50”, and breaking for lunch. Appoint an independent body to decide what the numbers should be and how the process should work, and you’re doing the job of government; make those decisions yourself and you appear to be trying to swing the game in your favour, purely for grubby partisan reasons, by executive fiat. [4]

Ideally, arguments over questions like this should happen out in the open, but—in a fantastic advert for coalition government, which is bound to persuade the country that we should opt for a system that would bring us lots more of it—the parties in government have made their agreements between them and then tried to bang the bill through the House at high speed with such troublesome questions left unasked. This is what has riled Labour so much, and it’s the reason why for a second week running we’ll all be sitting there until half past pigshit listening to them talk all about it. Where there might usually be room for some negotiation over some of the thornier aspects of the bill, instead there’s hours of speeches on one side of the room and amused silence (Conservatives) and sullen, sanctimonious silence (Lib Dems) on the other. Actually, that’s not quite true; occasionally there’s a waspish interlude from one or two Lib Dems, like Lord Tyler.
Lord Tyler [LD]: Only a few months ago, those over on the other side were pushing the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill through this House, with no pre-legislative scrutiny for huge chunks of it, trying to do so at great speed before the general election. [Hansard]
He’s right to imply that that was disgraceful behaviour by a government. Given that this government is doing precisely the same thing, the key difference here, the element that means that it’s not disgraceful, must be the fact that it isn’t just before an election. I’m glad he cleared that up.

There’s a glimmer of hope. A Telegraph story filed yesterday evening quotes “a government peer” as saying: “We are completely buggered if we don’t do a deal. There is no way we can get this through unless we offer concessions” [Telegraph]. I’m eager to see if this truth sinks in before, say, 5 o’clock tomorrow morning.

[1] This is, unsurprisingly, a horrifically truncated version of what happens—for a start, some bills actually get introduced in the Lords first and then get approved in the Commons—but for those who want to know more, a far more detailed explanation of the functions of the House of Lords can be found.  Back

[2] They so don’t.  Back

[3] The rule of law and due legal process; commitment to international humanitarian law; non-use of torture; limits on presidential power. Basically, at the end of Bush's tenure they were lucky he hadn't gone ahead and changed the country's name as well.  Back

[4] Something something ministerial car.  Back


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 24th, 2011 07:16 pm (UTC)
I see Lord Selsdon stuck his oar in last week. He must have been sitting there desperate to join in.
Jan. 24th, 2011 07:34 pm (UTC)
Lord Selsdon: I speak as treasurer and secretary of the House of Lords Yacht Club and I am an islander. Historically, I come from Islay. My family are normally buried at sea and the female line like to have their caskets dropped off the Nab Tower—perhaps the Government can advise me on whether the Nab Tower is, or is not, part of the Isle of Wight. [Hansard]
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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