Politics.co.uk Blog

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Is this really what the Lords is for?

Sometimes the openly political machinations of peers makes it far too easy for critics of the unelected upper House to do their job.

Earlier this week we reported on Charlie Falconer's attempt to derail next May's planned referendum on electoral reform. He was attempting to shunt the parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill, of which it was part, into an obscure House of Lords committee which could have delayed it sufficiently to kybosh the referendum. In the end the Lords narrowly defeated his motion with a majority of just 14, ending the matter.

I've been talking to a clerk in the Lords about the baffling legalistic "wheezes", as the leader of the Lords put it, which Lord Falconer was deploying. Without entering into the complexities of "hybridity" – whether the bill specifically affects private interests or not – milord Falconer's argument was that something which is usually spotted before a bill begins its passage through the Commons and then the Lords had not been spotted, or even complained about, during its passage in the Commons.

This was suspicious enough, as peers pointed out in Monday's debate. What has now been explained to me is how brazenly political the move was.

Had Falconer's motion been successful, the 'hybridity' question would have been put to a a panel of Lords officials who would have provided an answer. These are the clerk of public bills in both Houses, who would also call in counsel to the chair of both committees. It turns out these are the same clerks who informally categorise bills before they begin their parliamentary journey, meaning they are highly unlikely to change their minds. Doing so would admit they got it wrong the first time! Doesn't seem at all probable to me.

Falconer was confronted with this when he discussed the matter with the clerks, but – so I'm told, at least – he didn't have a leg to stand on. But he went ahead and very nearly got his way. Is this really what the unelected Lords is for?

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