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27 October 2015

Where next for the House of Lords?

Reform the Lords - but to the benefit of democracy, not the Conservatives. 

By George Foulkes

Yesterday was a historic day for the House of Lords.

Not because we had a bishop using an iPad from which to deliver his speech. Not because Andrew Lloyd Webber flew first class across the Atlantic for a rare visit so that he could vote for cuts in tax credit for working families, alongside his millionaire colleagues. Nor because the main protagonists were feisty, able women – Baronesses Smith of Basildon, Hollis, Meacher and Manzoor.

But rather because Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, together with the Archbishop of York, combined to defeat the Government plan to axe tax credits without any compensatory measures.

David Cameron and George Osborne are furious, claiming we have overstepped the mark. Yet this was a statutory instrument and not primary legislation, so any convention would not apply.

They did not have a proposal to cut tax credits in their manifesto. Indeed, at an election Question Time, Cameron specifically ruled out such a cut. So we in the Lords were both acting within our powers and enabling Cameron to keep his word.

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The Hollis motion was practical and positive, which is why it was carried by cross-party and crossbench support. It was designed to help the poorest in our society who work hard and do the right thing. It called upon the government, on the Prime Minister and Chancellor, to listen to the concerns being raised about their cuts to tax credits, and the impact this will have, and to provide full transitional protection for those hardworking families who stand to suffer, through no fault of their own.

If the Liberal Democrat amendment had been passed instead, the government could have returned with primary legislation, to which a veto would not apply.

The Lords is a revising chamber, and that in effect is what we have done. We have asked the Government to think again. But the supreme irony is that this has been done by the Lords, the composition of which has only one party defending it – the Conservatives.

Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour are in favour of replacing our unelected House with a more representative second chamber. Indeed, if Ed Miliband had become Prime Minister, a Labour government would now be legislating for a Senate of the Nations and Regions.

This manifesto commitment was foreshadowed in a report – A programme for progress – produced by a committee of Labour peers published in March 2014. We proposed two-stage reform. The first immediate stage would bring in a retirement age, an attendance requirement, and other mechanisms to make it more modern and effective at once.

More important was the second stage. A constitutional convention would devise a scheme for the second chamber after wide public consultation. Options including direct and indirect election would be considered, with the pros and cons of each spelled out in the consultation. We agree that, in the 21st Century, it is no longer acceptable for the second chamber in our legislature to consist of appointed, and a few remaining hereditary, peers.

Until however, such time as the Lords is replaced by a representative chamber, we must exercise our right to hold the government to account.

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