Yesterday, Labour MPs contributed to the biggest majority in favour of House of Lords reform in history. We made good on our commitment to support the House of Lords Reform Bill in its progress to the next legislative stage. And our position on this Bill has been clear for many weeks now. We want a reformed House of Lords. It’s a principled position that Labour has held for many years, and our unparalleled track record in reforming the second chamber is testimony to this.
But just because we want to see reform doesn’t mean we will blindly throw our weight behind the Government’s Bill. As it stands, it is a sub-standard Bill – elements of it are unpalatable. So there’s no blank cheque from us. If the Bill as it stands were implemented in full, reform of the second chamber would be botched. And that would set back the whole constitutional reform agenda for a generation. This must be avoided at all costs.
So, we welcome the fact that the Government saw sense yesterday and backed down in their attempt to stifle debate in the Commons on their proposals to reform the House of Lords. The inner workings of Parliament may be a mystery to the general public at large and House of Lords reform might not be their top priority. But the Government have chosen to legislate to reform our second chamber, so it’s incumbent on MPs of all sides to ensure this inadequate Bill is moulded into one more fit for purpose. And that means ample opportunity to debate, amend, revise and improve.
Ed Miliband has already given his assurances that we want to see this Bill make progress. We would support moves to get the Bill to the next stage of the process. So our position is not about opportunism or trouble causing – it’s actually about avoiding trouble down the line by knocking this Bill into shape. And Committee Stage is the opportunity to do this. This is when amendments from Labour, and from others, will be debated and will be voted on. And we’ve been clear we will seek to amend the Bill in a number of ways, including holding a referendum, so it deals better with how the Commons and the Lords work together, and produces a system that is truly democratically accountable.
We look forward to Nick Clegg learning from the past weeks and months, and that he opens a proper dialogue with Labour on how we ensure that reform of the Lords is achieved without resorting to restricting full and proper debate by our parliamentary colleagues. What we need is a proper attempt at consensus, not just one focused on reaching agreement between coalition partners. Instead of solely focusing on satisfying the Government’s backbenchers, the Deputy Prime Minister must work with parliamentary colleagues across the whole House. And yes, I’m afraid it might be a slower process than he’d like, but it is crucial if we are to get this opportunity for reform right and if we are to avoid the plans being at the whim of future changes of government not bought into the proposals. Labour learnt these lessons the hard way during our thirteen years in Government – it’s a shame that our wisdom on this matter has been ignored.
If the Government opts to limit the amount of time available for Committee Stage, the risk is that all of the inadequacies of the Bill won’t have time to be discussed and amended. This would be a mistake. The usual opportunity for further revising of the Bill by colleagues in the House of Lords is, on this occasion, not quite the same option given the Government’s desire to use the Parliament Act to get this Bill approved. If the Act is used, then all amendments made by colleagues in the Lords are discarded – and so only amendments made by MPs will matter. So the work we do in the Commons is doubly important – all the more reason to not artificially limit debate.
We’ve been posed the question how many days does Labour actually want for the debate. That over-simplifies a complex issue – while we know what our priorities are in seeking to improve the Bill, and that we’d like the time to address them, what’s not in our control is the tactics of the rebels on the Government benches. If the rumours are true about “filibuster packs” being produced by rebel Tory MPs, then there’s the very real risk that they will simply talk and talk so there’s no time left for our genuine, constructive concerns to be aired. This is a problem for the Government to sort out.
So, while we remain committed to delivering a reformed House of Lords, there needs to be much more openness from the Government to debate and discuss our concerns, and for there to be a proper two-way dialogue about how those in favour of reform can deliver an effective House of Lords Reform Bill. So far, the Government’s obsession is with those against reform, which is a skewing of priorities. A truly pro-reform consensus can be forged if the Deputy Prime Minister breaks his habit of partisan hectoring, and actually sought to work with Labour in a constructive manner. Our door is not closed.
Sadiq Khan MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Justice with special responsibility for constitutional reform