David, in a Telegraph article, made plain his opposition to current plans to reform the House of Lords.
He said that the introduction of elections to the chamber will have the effect of politicising what is at present a highly effective chamber which has served the important purpose of keeping over-dominant governments in check.
Ironically it is often the most modern aspects – like the overly close coterie of political leaders, big bankers and media moguls – that fail the British people, and the oldest which serve them best.
The centuries-old House of Lords is one establishment success story, but now the Government’s plans for Lords reform threaten to deal its effectiveness a devastating blow.
On Monday a parliamentary committee called for 80% of Lords to be elected. They would serve single, non-renewable 15 year terms and would be elected using a form of proportional representation – the Liberal Democrats’ Holy Grail. The first Lords elections are pencilled in for 2015.
Unsurprisingly, this issue has not generated much attention or excitement beyond Westminster. For voters, it is a low priority, the political class at its most self-absorbed. In almost a quarter of a century in Parliament I have yet to hear any MP say he is swamped with letters about Lords reform.
However, none of this diminishes the importance of the role the Lords plays in our democracy. Creating an elected House of Lords could have enormously damaging ramifications, and if reform must happen we should tread carefully.
First, history shows the Lords is the only institution which has stood up to overmighty governments whose dominance in the Commons led to unreasonable actions. Take New Labour’s assault on our civil liberties as an example.
In 2005 the Lords sat for thirty hours straight, the longest sitting in its history, to oppose control order laws. After the Labour government used its massive majority to give control orders the all clear, it was Law Lords who rightly ruled that their most draconian power – the 18 hour curfew for individuals not even charged with a crime – was unacceptable. When the same government imposed control orders on British citizens without showing any evidence to justify it, Law Lords again slapped them down.
In 2006 it was the House of Lords which changed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, a law which could have made it a crime to criticise a religion. The Lords remembered what the Commons forgot – that freedom of speech includes the right to offend.
In 2007, the Commons approved laws to allow some cases to be tried without a jury. Fortunately, the Lords saw this for what it was – an assault on one of the cornerstones of a free society. When the Lords debated the Bill, Lord Kingsland said what the Commons should have declared from the outset; that the “contribution of trial by jury to the preservation of the liberty of the individual, and to the legitimacy of Government, is quite incalculable.”
Even more recently, in 2008, Gordon Brown managed to push, bully and cajole through the Commons a Bill allowing police to detain people without charge for 42 days. The Lords stood firm, inflicting a humiliating 191 vote defeat on the government.
Because of the limited separation of powers in Britain, governments with sizeable majorities are far more powerful here than in any other democratic state. A heavily whipped Commons is nothing like as effective a check on the overmighty state as the Lords has proven in practice.
Second, the Lords currently counts among its members men and women of vast expertise and experience, from ex-Cabinet Ministers and successful businessmen to leading scientists and religious leaders.
The Lords’ critics sometimes say that its members’ experience is out of date, but our upper chamber is no meeting place for retirees. On the contrary it benefits from the contributions of some of the most informed, active and energetic experts in their field.
In its ranks are scientist Robert Winston, Next boss Simon Wolfson, broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, former Paralympian and disability rights campaigner Tanni Grey-Thompson, Olympics organiser Sebastian Coe, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and advertising magnate Maurice Saatchi.
Even if some Lords have long since retired from their main careers, I would prefer an upper chamber filled with those ennobled for past achievements than one filled with professional networkers and party favourites who schmoozed their way through each party’s candidate selection process. The Lords would be stronger with past experience and vast expertise than no experience and no expertise.
What is more, if Lords do have to be elected, why on earth would we elect them under a proportional system?
For an answer, look no further than the Lib Dems. Having suffered a crushing defeat in the AV referendum – a blatant attempt to rig the election system in their favour for elections to the House of Commons – they are now trying desperately to increase their power in the House of Lords. Less than a year ago voters delivered a ringing endorsement of the first-past-the-post system, and if Lords are elected by any system, it should be that one.
In short, the Government has got its approach to Lords reform all wrong.
It should focus less on who is in the House of Lords and how they get there, and more on its purpose, its role and its relationship with the House of Commons, including whether an elected House of Lords would have more power than an appointed House of Lords to challenge the authority of Commons, and whether that would be desirable.
I am not saying that the Lords as it currently functions is perfect, but the coalition’s plans for reform threaten to undermine what it does so well.
If you were designing an institution to protect our judicial rights and ancient freedom, you might not design our current House of Lords, yet it has proved robust at standing up to overmighty governments, and standing up for victims of draconian laws. Drastic changes could deliver a serious blow to one of our most effective checks against excessive state power.
We must also be very wary of changes which threaten the Lords’ role as a bastion of unrivalled expertise which informs our public debate and improves Bills before they become law. A largely elected House of Lords could well be a less independent, less well-informed and more tribal House of Lords. That is why any government which proposes to change its composition or character should proceed with the utmost caution.