|Jenkin speaks against House of Lords Reform Bill ‘political crisis’|
|Wednesday, 11 July 2012 15:06|
Bernard Jenkin MP urged MPs to vote against the House of Lords Reform Bill, arguing that it would damage the British constitution and create a political crisis, by creating another chamber of elected party politicians which would be in conflict with the House of Commons. He also argued that such a massive constitutional change should be put to the British people in a referendum.
During the debate on the second reading of the Bill on 10th July, Mr Jenkin gave the following speech: ‘I commend the honourable Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who is breaking ranks with his party for the first time. It is a big step after such an illustrious career in this House.
‘The Government may well be withdrawing the programme motion, but I want to address the continuing threat of a timetable motion. Any attempt to force through a constitutional Bill of such significance and controversy represents an abuse of Parliament. Nobody whom I have heard speak in this debate is against reform of some form. Nobody supports the House of Lords as it is. The problem that this House always has to battle with is that, although there may be a consensus in favour of reform, there is no consensus on any particular reform. That is why so many seasoned Westminster watchers are so utterly perplexed about the determination with which the coalition is pressing ahead with this suicidal Bill. I suspect that it will prove to be a grievous self-inflicted wound for the coalition, perhaps even fatal, if it persists with it. Today’s dignified retreat nevertheless represents an abject defeat on the Bill, as there is little that saps the authority of an Administration more than an inability to obtain its business.
‘If a timetable motion were to be passed, it could prove the worst case for the coalition. A cobbled together, under-scrutinised proposal would undoubtedly get through this House in some form and then paralyse the upper House for the rest of the Session, only to be reintroduced in the next Session and forced through using the Parliament Act. I am describing not a worst-case scenario but the Government’s actual plan for conducting the progress of the Bill—to submerge this Parliament in a quagmire of Lords reform.
‘ It is not as though the Government were not already beset by problems and challenges on an awesome scale, as many Members have said. Economic growth is well below forecast, borrowing is still far too high and the unresolved and unresolvable euro crisis is probably leading us towards some kind of economic precipice. We are facing an economic emergency, as well as all the other challenges of government in a time of recession. This is the last moment for any Government to choose to pick a fight to alter any part of the constitution, when there is clearly no real consensus or common understanding of what needs to be done.
‘The debate so far can leave no one in any doubt that this is a massive constitutional change, but the Government have utterly failed to address the most fundamental questions about the upper House. What is the House of Lords for? Does it operate effectively as it is? Would the changes be likely to improve or impair its effectiveness? The answers are pretty straightforward. First, it is intended to be a revising Chamber, not a Senate or a rival to the House of Commons. Secondly, as the Deputy Prime Minister has himself admitted on many occasions, the current Chamber is very effective. Thirdly, the changes seem to be intended to supplant expertise and experience with more party politics, which is hardly likely to improve the Chamber’s effectiveness.
‘The Bill addresses no evident crisis of the legitimacy of our constitution, yet it threatens to create a political crisis on top of an economic crisis. There is no public clamour for the change, and there are no crowds in Parliament square crying out their support. That is why the Government fear a referendum on the Bill, because the voters would certainly reject the idea of replacing the current effective, proven and appointed House with more elected politicians, appointed to lists by their respective parties on ludicrous 15-year terms.
‘So what is the Bill really about? The Deputy Prime Minister should be careful about accusing others of having ulterior motives, because what is his? The Bill is about power. It is about the Government remaining in office now and about the Liberal Democrats building a power base for when they are not in office. It is the product of a stitch-up, a deal between two coalition parties to stay in power. It is a bid permanently to shift the balance of power away from this House and towards a more legitimate House of Lords.
‘May I address the extraordinarily charming and eloquent speech given by the right honourable Member for South Shields (David Miliband)? He said that the Bill’s opponents were trying to have it both ways, but it is its supporters who are trying to have it both ways. They cannot argue that an elected Lords would be more legitimate but in the same breath insist that the relationship between the two Houses would remain the same. The issue of primacy is just one of the fundamental issues that we will need to address before the Bill leaves this House.
‘That brings me to the continuing threat of a timetable motion. To timetable a constitutional measure under the current circumstances would be unconscionable. I say to my honourable Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that the much quoted Winston Churchill would be heaving in his grave with fury and indignation at the mere suggestion. The timetable is a modern invention, only introduced in 1997. The guillotine used to be an absolute exception, and even then was never used on a constitutional issue.
‘The Bill has 60 clauses and 11 schedules containing a further 158 paragraphs. The Government’s withdrawn motion would have allowed 60 hours in Committee, which would have been taken up by Divisions, urgent questions, statements and points of order as well as debate. That would have left, perhaps, an average of half an hour for each clause, let alone the schedules. Primacy, powers, accountability, remuneration, costs, expenses, staffing support, IPSA, financial privilege, the scrutiny of regulations, elections, voting systems, eligibility, constituencies, the question of a referendum or not—how many other topics will there be to debate, or must we have the freedom to debate should we so choose?
‘Constitutional measures used to pass through the House before there were timetables. Both the Parliament Acts themselves passed through the House without a timetable or guillotine. No timetable should be imposed, because our ability to scrutinise legislation in full is just about the only real check or balance in our constitution to protect it from the tyranny of a simple Commons majority.
‘As it stands, we are being asked to give a Second Reading to a Bill that will invite the Government to fast-track a massive constitutional change, which will nevertheless distract us from the crisis that demands our attention, which may fundamentally change the character of the government of our country, which fails to address the most fundamental questions about the upper House, which represents gerrymandering of the constitution and is the product of a stitch-up to stay in power, for which no referendum is to be provided, and on which the Government are determined to curtail debate.’
Mr Jenkin voted against the second reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill, which passed by 464 votes to 126. However, the programme motion (the timetable and time limit for the next stages of the Bill) was not moved.