The big news is that it passed its second reading on Tuesday 10th July, Ayes 462; Noes 124. However, 92 Conservative MPs rebelled and Cameron is pandering to them faster than an inexperienced uncle to a wailing toddler.
So, what happened on Tuesday? What’s a second reading and why is everyone so excited by it?
A draft bill is introduced to the House of Commons. It’s given its First Reading, where the title is read out and it’s sent to the printers.
On its Second Reading, the bill is debated. It’s an open house where you can debate the principles of the bill, individual clauses, what should or shouldn’t be in there, what’s not in there but should be, the colour of the paper its printed on–actually, I’m pretty sure you can’t debate that. MPs vote, and if successful, the bill is passed to the Committee Stage.
There are two types of committee: standing committees; and committees of the whole House. A standing committee is 16 to 50 MPs, appointed by the government and taking account of the current make up of the Commons. Whole House committees are only normally used when time is of the essence or the Bill is remarkably uncontroversial. In the committee, each clause of the bill is debated. Amendments can be made. The committees normally have a finite amount of time to debate the bill, decided in advance. The bill, plus amendments, is then Reported to the Commons.
At the report stage, all MPs in the Commons can debate the Bill-plus-amendments and propose their own amendments. It’s then given its Third Reading.
The Third Reading is a yes/no debate on the Bill. What’s on the paper, for or against. And if it passes the Commons, it goes to the House of Lords.
So, the Lords. I was going to skip this, but as the Bill is about reforming the Lords, it’s kind of important to know what the Lords actually does.
First Reading: the title’s read out, and the Bill is printed.
Second Reading: as above, basically.
Committee: as above, but normally it’s a whole House committee. And there’s no time limit on the debate.
Report Stage: as above, normally two weeks after the committee stage.
Third Reading: new amendments can be proposed, provided they’ve not been voted on or debated before. Normally used to clarify aspects of the Bill. Maybe we could call this the Grammar Nazi stage… Anyway, if it passes the yes/no vote, it goes back to the Commons.
The Commons debates the Lords’ amendments. If the Commons makes any amendments, it has to go back to the the Lords for them to debate and vote on the amendments. If the Lords makes any amendments, the Commons then has to debate and vote on them. Once both Houses agree, the monarch then signs the Bill into law.
A Bill can be introduced by the Commons, or the Lords. If it’s introduced by the Lords, then it goes through that chamber first, and is then passed onto the Commons. Same stages in both Houses.
Under some circumstances, the Commons can pass a Bill for royal assent even if the Lords won’t pass it. Because this is politics, this little and ill-defined footnote is the crux of the whole system.
The House of Lords is a ‘chamber of revision’. It’s there to keep the Commons in check, not to rival it. Kind of like a kindly parent, it’ll nudge the Commons back on course but will ultimately stand back and let it makes its own mistakes.
If a public Bill was introduced by the House of Commons, the Lords can’t block it unless it proposes to extend the maximum duration of Parliament for more than five years, or it’s confirming a Provisional Order (a Bill that authorises action by local authorities on behalf of Parliament).
The Lords can’t block a Bill if the Speaker of the Commons has designated it a ‘money bill’. A money bill deals exclusively with raising or spending taxes, or with public debt.
The Lords can delay a money Bill for up to a month, and any other Bill for up to a year.
If a Bill has passed through three separate sessions of the Commons, it can be presented for royal assent without being passed by the Lords. A parliamentary session normally lasts from mid-November until late July–it’s the parliamentary year. Every time there’s a state opening of parliament, it’s a new session.
There’s also a unwritten agreement called the Salisbury Convention that says the Lords won’t block a Bill based on a manifesto promise on its second or third reading.
Right, all sorted? I like to think I’m doing a service here. I mean, it’s taken me a good three hours to get all this info together. Not least because half the links on Parliament’s website return 404s. Deep breath, one more talking point before I rant about the Reform Bill.
So, who can sit in the Lords?
First, there are the hereditary peers. There are about 700 hereditary peers with the right to sit in the Lords. 92 of them were elected to do so in 1999, when the number of hereditary peers in the Lords was reduced to 92, and one of the dies, the peers elect someone else. Hereditary Peers with the right to sit in the Lords consist of five ranks: Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron
Then, there are the life peers. These are titles the sitting government gives out that grants someone the right to sit in the Lords. There’s about 700 of them at the moment. Technically, they’re Barons.
These two groups are the Lords Temporal.
The next group is the Lords Spiritual: 26 Church of England bishops. The church appoints the bishops.
Lastly, there’s the Law Lords. Appointed by the sitting Prime Minister and rubber-stamped by the Queen, they need to have been a practising barrister for at least fifteen years and held a ‘high judicial office’ (like a judge) for two years. There’s 12 of them, and, as they’re supposed to be politically neutral, they don’t take part in debates.
Now! The Reform Bill! Juicy, juicy Reform Bill!
So, the case for reform. Well, shit. We have a second chamber full of people appointed by the government.
Here’s a table I stole from Wikipedia:
|Prime Minister||Party||Tenure||Peers||Per year|
|* Macmillan’s average calculated for the 5 years under the Act.
** Wilson’s combined average is 25.4 life peerages per year.Life peerages conferred on hereditary peers (from 1999 onwards) are not included in the numbers.
Cameron’s really going for it, isn’t he?
You know, if I was sitting Prime Minister and I wanted my Bills passed, I’d make sure to fill the chamber which is supposed to keep me in check with my supporters. Guess Cameron had the same idea. And Blair, and Thatcher, and Wilson….
The justification is that peers appointed by previous governments balance out those appointed by the current government. There’s some merit in that, but there’s far more stupidity.
And let’s not overlook the fact that the PM has the power to appoint the peers. The PM has the power to put, say, large party donors in there as a reward for funding their party. Or to put thrice-disgraced and ousted ministers in there and welcome them back into government. Or, fuck it, to put their cat in there. I’m not sure what Baron Tiddles’ views would be, but… actually, wait. If there’s one person guaranteed to be independent, it’s the PM’s cat. You can’t train a cat to do fucking anything.
The person in power is responsible for appointing the people who keep their power in check. It’s not a good system.
To be honest, I’d rather have hereditary peers than life peers. Hereditary peers don’t own their power to anyone, and have been breed for generations to sit in the Lords. It’s going to mean a few sofa-chewing inbred half-wits, but that’s just the blue bloods. We’ve always been ruled by sofa-chewing half-wits. Makes us feel like everything is right in the world. But Blair got rid of them because, well, independent peers who’ve been trained for decades to sit in the Lords–what could they possibly know? No, no. Far better to fill the second chamber with lackeys and sycophants, whose qualifications extend to being able to say, ‘you’re awesome!’, and having lots of money to give to the PM. A victory for democracy!
Speaking of democracy, the government’s justification for the Bill is:
“In a modern democracy it is important that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those to whom those laws apply. The House of Lords performs its work well but lacks sufficient democratic authority”.
As well as the principle of Right to Rule (people born and bred to rule are the best people to do so), I have sympathy for an unelected second chamber. If the second chamber doesn’t have to worry about keeping their jobs, they don’t have to pander to whatever ignorant, reactionary bandwagon the Daily Mail have whipped up and can govern with some sense of long-term interest, instead of constantly governing for the next election.
So, this Bill. Have you ever read a government Bill? It’s like trying to eat a pillow. You can download your own copy here, if you like.
First important point: reform of the Lords was a manifesto commitment by all three parties, and part of the coalition agreement. It would fall under the Salisbury Convention, which is good because as a rule, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
So, under the proposals, what will the new House of Lords look like?
There will be 300 members. 240 will be elected, 60 will be appointed, and there will be 12 Lords Spiritual. Astute readers will notice that adds up to 312. The Lords Spiritual would have the same sitting and voting rights as the other peers, but wouldn’t get paid or any tax breaks. The Bill describes them as ‘ex-facto’ members.
The elected members will sit for three election cycles (normally 15 years). They won’t be able to stand for re-election.
They will be elected by a proportional representation system. The UK will be divided up into districts, with each district electing between 5 and 7 peers. The districts will be weighted by population, so each district will have roughly the same number of voters.
Peers will be elected by the single transferable vote system–you rank individual candidates in preference.
If you can stand for election in the Commons, you can stand for election in the Lords. You don’t get a peerage if you’re elected to the Lords, though. Elections would be held at the same time as elections to the Commons.
Appointed peers would be selected by the Statutory Appointments Commission. The Commission would be made up of seven people appointed by the Queen and entirely independent of the government. Members of the Commons and government ministers would not be eligible, and each member would sit on the Commission for ten years. The Commission can decide for itself who it chooses to recommend, but they have to publish and be held accountable for their process.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, as well as the bishops of London, Durham and Winchester will keep their seats in the Lords. The other seven Lords Spiritual will be appointed from the bishops of the Church of England, by the C of E.
The powers and role of the Lords will not change.
Currently, members of the Lords aren’t paid. The members of the new Lords will be, and will get pensions. The Lords Spiritual won’t, though. All new peers will get tax-free expenses.
The one objection I have to an elected second chamber is the necessity of pandering to whatever populist, short-term bigotry is currently doing the rounds in order to keep your job. A 15 year term should guard against that, apart from in the couple of years before an election. That means we still get a good thirteen years, which is thirteen more than we get from the Commons.
The one objection I have to the proposed reforms is the Lords Spiritual. Frankly, its embarrassing that we’ve still got them at all. The one mercy is that they’re Church of England, so they’re only eighty or ninety years behind the times. If people want to elect religious leaders, then that’s cool. C of E, Catholic, Sikh, Hindu, Taoist, whatever they want. We shouldn’t give seats to religious leaders without question or comment, though. What right do they have to rule us? Fucking none. Five hundred years ago, yeah, but not now. If we’re still ‘a Christian country’, then I’m sure the bishops will be elected by the people of this country. If we’re not a Christian country, then they have no right ruling us. Come on, Lords Spiritual, what you afraid of?
But enough of my objections! What did those 124 MPs object to?
Well, someone on the opposition benches actually made a good point. It may even have been Ed ‘Marks & Spencer mannequin’ Milliband. Regardless of their own personal views, it is the duty of the opposition party to object to legislation put forwards by the government. Because otherwise, well, what about the members of the public who object to it? Who’s representing them?
The Labour Auton also demanded that the changes be put to a referendum.
But the big news is that back bench Tories rebelled. Why? Well, as far as I can tell, two major reasons:
First, this isn’t the time for constitutional reform. We’re in the middle of one of the biggest worldwide economic crises of our generation and blah blah blah. There’s always going to be a reason why it’s the ‘wrong time’.
Second, the elected second chamber will get ideas above its station, challenge the Commons and prevent any and every Bill passing into law because it’s got an ego to feed. Well, the Reform Bill specifically states that the powers and purpose of the Lords won’t change. If the elected members start thumping their chests, it wouldn’t be hard to smack them back into place. And anyone stands for election in order to derail the Commons, then they haven’t read the job description.
Both reasons are just privileged dickheads waving their arms around and wailing, ‘but change is baaad!’
As is often the case, though, those privileged dickheads may get their way. Instead of the 80% elected chamber, Cameron is proposing a plan where the 92 hereditary peers are kicked out and replaced with elected peers by the next election. This in return for the Lib Dems supporting Tory policies redrawing election boundaries to benefit the Tories, and slashing the number of MPs in the Commons from 650 to 600.
Privileged dickheads throwing temper tantrums over any challenge to their unearned power. Once again, the reason why we can’t have nice things.
Fuck you, Tory rebels. Fuck you with a spanner.