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10 July 2012

Why Tory MPs must support House of Lords reform

We must be seen to give power to the many and take it away from the few.

By Laura Sandys

At the time of writing, we are on the cusp of one of the most important constitutional reform votes in a generation. Some Conservative MPs might claim they have policy objections to the bill. But ultimately, tonight’s vote is a clear choice: either members are for “selection” or for “election” to the second chamber. Either members are for appointments, or they are for devolving power to the people via the ballot box.

Opponents have obsessed over the bill’s detail – the proportional voting system, the 15 year terms, the 80:20 split have dominated proceedings. But in walking through the oppposition lobby tonight, members would be voting against the very principle of democracy and election. They would be denying the bill a future and denying the House an opportunity to refine the bill’s contents at committee stage. If members support the very principle of elections, they should pass this bill.

As a good Conservative, there are many reasons to support the bill. Critics have claimed it is solely a Liberal Democrat agenda. But we cannot blame our coalition partners for much of the philosophy behind the bill. Elected police commissioners and city mayors were Conservative driven policies. Localism, the devolution of power to the electorate and trusting in the people is part of our DNA. If we condemn the European Union for its lack of democracy, why should we deny the public the right to vote for 50 per cent of our parliament?  It is absolutely critical that we, as Conservatives, are seen to be giving power to the many and taking it away from the few.

Opponents of reform seem concerned that the government will struggle to get its legislation through Parliament if there are two elected, functioning Houses. But the House of Commons is not the government, it is separate. Two elected Houses of Parliament would not defeat any government any more than they do in any bicameral systems around the world. And it would be no bad thing if a stronger Parliament deterred the government from passing ill-considered legislation. As good Conservatives, by passing this Bill, we would also achieve the objective of getting government to do less, but better.

Finally, members seem convinced that the case for “selection” lies in the fact political bias would be avoided. But what criteria would be used for selection? Would membership of a political party preclude appointment to the second chamber? We must consider whether people would represent vested interests – the British Medical Association; the National Union of Teachers and the Law Society are already heavily represented – and embed the status quo rather than offer reform and move our democracy forward. Members must be clear that selection can be negative. One of the previous chairmen of The House of Lords Appointments Commission said: “We don’t want hairdressers in the House of Lords.” Selection processes will favour only those who are in the right dinner party circuit, who have networked and are well connected, not necessarily the best person for the job.

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Perhaps not every aspect of the bill is perfect – some of us might have liked more radical reform – but tonight’s vote offers us an opportunity to take a crucial step forward. It is an opportunity for us to say that we trust the people, and that we are taking away the appointments system from the Prime Minister and giving it to the electorate.