Deputy Prime Minister’s oral statement on Lords reform

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The full text of Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, on the publication of the House of Lords Reform Draft Bill.

The full text of the oral statement to the House of Commons by the Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, on the publication of the House of Lords Reform Draft Bill.

Check Against Delivery

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the government’s plans to reform the other place. At the last General Election each major party committed to a democratically elected second chamber.
The Coalition Agreement set out very clearly the government’s intention to deliver this, but the roots of these changes can be traced back much further.

A century ago the government, led by Herbert Asquith, promised to create a second chamber “constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis”.

There has been progress in the intervening years – the majority of hereditary peers have gone, and the other place is now predominantly made up of life peers. We should see ourselves now as completing that work. People have a right to choose their representatives. That is the most basic feature of a modern democracy. Our second chamber – known for its wisdom and expertise – is nonetheless undermined by the fact it is not directly accountable to the British people.

So today I am publishing a draft bill, and accompanying white paper, which set out proposals for reform.

In the Programme for Government we undertook “to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”. I chaired that cross-party committee and we reached agreement on many of the most important issues; not all, but good progress was made, and those deliberations have greatly shaped the proposals published today.

I would like to pay tribute to all of the members, particularly from the benches opposite, who engaged with us in an open and collaborative fashion.

Let me also thank those individuals whose past work on Lords reform has laid the foundations for what we are doing today, particularly the Rt Hon Member for Blackburn and the noble Lord Wakeham. Rather than start anew, the government has benefited from their previous endeavours. Today’s proposals represent a genuine, collective effort over time.

The draft bill and white paper will now be scrutinised by a Joint Committee, composed of 13 peers and 13 members of this House. It will report early next year and a government bill will then be introduced.

The Prime Minister and I are clear: we want the first elections to the reformed upper chamber to take place in 2015. But, while we know what we want to achieve, we are open minded about how we get there. Clearly our fixed goal is greater democratic legitimacy for the other place but we will be pragmatic in order to achieve it.

So, we propose an upper House made up of 300 members, each eligible for a single term of three parliaments. 300 is the number we judge to be right, but this is an art and not a science.

In the vast majority of bicameral systems, the second chamber is significantly smaller. That arrangement helps maintain a clear distinction between the two Houses. We’re confident that 300 full time members can cover the work comfortably. We are, however, open to alternative views on this.

The Coalition Agreement committed the government to produce proposals for a wholly or mainly elected chamber. That debate is reflected in what we are publishing today.

The Bill makes provision for 80% of members to be elected with the remaining 20% appointed independently. The 60 appointed members would sit as cross-benchers, not as representatives of political parties. In addition, Bishops of the Church of England would continue to sit in the other place, reduced in number from 26 to 12.

The white paper includes the case for 100% elected. The 80/20 split is the more complicated option, and so has been put into the draft bill in order to illustrate it in legislative terms. The 100% option would be easy to substitute into the draft Bill should that be where we end up.

There are people on all sides of this House who support a fully elected chamber, believing an elected House of Lords should be just that. Others, again on all sides, take a different view, and support having a non-elected component in order to retain an element of non-party expertise, as well as to keep greater distinction between the two Houses.

Personally I have always supported 100% elected, but the key thing is not to make the best the enemy of the good. That approach has stymied Lords reform for too long. Surely, at the end of the day, we can all agree that 80% is better than 0%. Elections to the new reformed House will be staggered: at each general election a third of members will be elected, or a combination of elected and appointed. That is to prevent the other place from becoming a mirror image of this House. In the Bill we set out how those elections could be conducted using the single transferable vote.

The Coalition Agreement specifies only that the system must be proportional, and what is most important is that it is different from whatever we use in the Commons.

That is so the two chambers have distinct mandates; one should not seek to emulate the other. STV allows for that, and would also give the upper chamber greater independence from party control. Votes are cast for individuals rather than parties, putting the emphasis on the expertise and experience candidates offer, rather than the colour of the rosette they wear.

We want to preserve the independence of spirit that has long distinguished that House from this one. I know some members prefer a party list system, including opposition members of the cross-party committee I chaired. We are willing to have this debate, and have not ruled out a list-based system in the White Paper.

The Commons will retain ultimate say over legislation through the Parliament Acts. It will continue to have a decisive right over the vote of supply. In order for a government to remain in office it will still need to secure the confidence of MPs.
The other place will continue to be a revising chamber, providing scrutiny and expertise. Its size, electoral cycle, voting system, and terms will all help keep it distinct from the Commons – a place that remains one step removed from the day to day party politics that, quite rightly, animates this House.

What will be different is that our second chamber will finally have a democratic mandate. It will be much more accountable as a result.

Clearly, the transition must be carefully managed. We propose to phase the reform over three electoral cycles. In 2015 a third of members will be elected, or a combination of elected and appointed. The number of sitting peers will be reduced by a third – we are not prescribing the process for that. It will be up to the parties in the other place to decide. In 2020, a further third will come in under the new system, and then again in 2025.

There are other ways of staging the transition; the White Paper sets out two of them.

To conclude, history teaches us that completing the unfinished business of Lords reform is not without challenges.

Our proposals are careful and balanced. They represent evolution, not revolution, a typically British change. I hope members from all sides of this House, and the other place, will help us get them right.

The government is ready to listen, we are prepared to adapt, but we are determined, in the end, to act.

I commend this statement to the House.