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.