The Tories' power grab in the Lords

The only reason the government has to increase its share of peers is to make it easier to ram legisl

Government legislation has run into trouble in the Lords. The Lords rejected proposals to cut support for young disabled people and those living with cancer. They voted to reject proposals to charge single mothers for using the Child Support Agency. And the government's disastrous Health and Society Care Bill was defeated.

The response from the government has been to draw up plans to stuff the House of Lords with new peers to enable them to ram legislation through the Lords much the way they do in the Commons. They have no case to do so.

Margaret Thatcher didn't have to worry about getting her legislation through Parliament. Massive majorities in the Commons were buttressed by comfortable majorities in the House of Lords. The House of Lords is composed of peers taking a party whip (about 70 per cent of the total) and cross benchers (those taking no party whip who vote less often).

The presence of hereditary peers in the Thatcher/Major years meant two thirds of the peers taking a party whip were Conservative. Overall 43-45 per cent of the peers in the Lords were Conservatives between 1979 and 1997. Given many cross benchers don't vote it was little surprise that of the 2859 divisions in the House of Lords between 1979 and 1997 the Conservatives lost just 8.4 per cent. By contrast, between 1997 and 2010 - the 13 years of Labour government - the Lords defeated the government on 528 of 1704 occasions 31 per cenmt of the time. Why the difference?

Because during 13 years of Labour government the number of Labour peers in the House of Lords (once the hereditaries left) increased from 29.1 per cent to 30.8 per cent. In 13 years of a Labour government the party which saw the biggest increase in its share of peers was in fact the Liberal Democrats whose numbers increased by almost 50 per cent Today the government combined share of peers in the House of Lords is 39 per cent - a third more than Labour had at any point during its 13 years in power.

The only reason the government has to increase its share of peers is to make it easier to ram legislation through. We should not be surprised at this shameless power grab from a government that plans to use changes to Parliamentary constituency boundaries and to the way households register to vote to strengthen its grip on power.

In the House of Commons, I challenged the Leader of the House, Sir George Young, to rule out rigging the composition of the Lords to further favour the government he failed to do so. David Cameron's big idea - the Big Society - turned out to be a flop. It would appeared that the Tories' big idea, after 13 years in opposition, is to grab as much power as possible and hold on to it. It is a dangerous and depressing development for the health of our democracy.

Angela Eagle is the shadow leader of the House of Commons.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”