Tom Copley’s London Eye
As far as possible I intend to keep this column London-focussed. It is, after all, meant to be about issues affecting Londonand Londoners. But given that Boris Johnson has decided to foray into the debate about House of Lords reform I see no reason why I shouldn’t do the same.
It’s hardly surprising that Boris opposes reforming the House of Lords tooth and nail. I often think that were he ever raised to the peerage he would fit in rather well. I can imagine him positively delighting in the ermine robes donned by peers during the State Opening, snoozing gently on the red benches during long debates and making the occasional jocular intervention to the muffled “hear, hears” of his noble friends.
The very fact that Boris is such an ardent supporter of the present institution of the House of Lords serves to reinforce my view that it needs to be reformed, although it’s fair to say Lord Johnson would be infinitely preferable to Mayor Johnson.
Before I continue it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the very many working peers who do a great job revising and amending legislation. But I start from a very simple premise: no one should be allowed to vote on the laws of this country unless they have been elected. That this should be a contentious issue even within the Labour Party astonishes me.
Appointed Lords are there by the patronage of the powerful, not the will of the people. The mere idea of this should be offensive to those of us who believe in Labour values. It is to the eternal shame of the last Labour government that Lords reform was not completed. Not only was it a colossal missed opportunity; it was also a tactical blunder. We could have shaped the new House on our terms but instead we dropped the ball, and Nick Clegg has picked it up. His proposals are far from perfect – but they are a damn sight better than what we’ve got now.
Let’s start with the imperfections in this bill, and there are several. First, the new House will be too big. To be fair Nick Clegg wanted a more reasonably sized chamber of 300 members, but has accepted a recommendation from MPs and peers that it be made up of 450 members. But it is still far smaller than the current chamber.
Second, although their numbers will be cut, the Church of England retains its privileged place in our legislature. It is unacceptable in a modern democracy for the clerics of any religion to be given the automatic right to vote on our laws.
Third, the new House will retain an appointed element, albeit vastly reduced in size.
Yet despite this, Nick Clegg’s bill is far less imperfect that the chamber it seeks to reform. Defenders of the status quo point to the expertise of the Lords. There are a significant number of experts, it’s true. But these experts are not restricted to opining or voting on their particular field of expertise – they can vote on any legislation they like. And just because someone is an “expert” in a particular area does not qualify them to be a lawmaker. The very reason governments put their proposals out for consultation before bringing them to Parliament is to gauge expert opinion.
“But it’s not the right time!” cry the opponents of reform. ”There are far more important issues to address.” Well, it’s never the right time is it? There will always be more important issues on the political agenda than reforming our second chamber. The point is reforming it will improve our legislative process and lead to better scrutiny and better laws. We already have an over-mighty executive. An elected second chamber will serve as a further check on the powers of government. Besides, the very people who complain that it will take up too much parliamentary time are precisely the ones who intend to slow it down and ensure it takes up as much parliamentary time as possible.
Perhaps the most “niche” argument (if one could call it that) is that a reformed House of Lords will threaten the primacy of the House of Commons. Interestingly enough the only people who care about the primacy of the House of Commons are MPs, and you might say that they have a vested interest.
Their lordships’ House may look appealing through Boris Johnson’s rose-tinted spectacles, but the reality is it is an affront to democracy. I say enough is enough. We’ve been waiting a hundred years for the Lords to be reformed and this is the best chance we’ve got, so let’s grab it before it’s too late.
Tom Copley is a member of the London Assembly. He writes here in a personal capacity.