Lords Reform Bill: second reading

Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield. © Queen Mary College, University of London
06 December 2010

Lord Lothian and Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield (pictured) made their maiden speeches in the House of Lords on Friday 3 December in the second reading of the Lord Reform Bill – a debate on the principals of the Bill

Lord Lothian

In his speech Lord Lothian set out the criteria what against which he believes proposals for reform of the House of Lords should be judged.

Reform should never challenge the ‘democratically mandated authority’ of the Commons and should enhance the ability of the House of Lords to hold Government to account, its ‘inherent and indisputable’ value, he said. ‘Any reform that weakens that role does our democratic system no favours. Equally, any reform that seeks to create of this House a political echo of the other place, with a loyal and in-built government majority, not only dilutes the ability of this House to deliver accountability but reduces, if not eliminates, its ability to ask the Executive of the day to think again.’ Lord Lothian also said it was vital also that reform did nothing to ‘reduce the breadth and depth of experience and expertise’ that epitomise the Lords.

The greatest strength of the House of Lords is ‘the indefinable spirit of independence’ he said: ‘Government reactions have usually been of irritation, but they are often followed by a realisation that something outside what the late Lord Hailsham of Marylebone called “the elected dictatorship” has spoken in the best interests of the nation.’

In closing Lord Lothian said he believed stewardship was the greatest obligation of public service: ‘to leave to those who come after us that which we received from those who went before us in as good a state, if not better, than we received it.’ A concept that encompasses the ‘improvements they will bring for those who come after us’ and applies in ‘what we do to our constitution.’

Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield

Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield spoke of his long fascination for the ‘wiring and the moving parts’ of the British constitution – of which he is now a ‘small particle of the very big and significant part’ as a Member of the House of Lords – that began when he read Walter Bagehot’s ‘The English Constitution,’ written in 1867.

Quoting Bagehot, Lord Hennessey said the crucial test to apply to any proposed new configuration of the House of Lords is ‘could the Members of a reformed Chamber still be seen as respected revisers?’ as Bagehot prescribed.

Once in favour of an elected Chamber Lord Hennessy said there were two reasons for his change of mind. There is ‘high and continuing utility’ in having politically sensitive people in the legislative process who are not party-politically partisan, he said. If widening the ‘confluence of backgrounds, knowledge and experience’ when recruiting is a shared goal, appointment rather than election remained the ‘best and primary instrument’ for achieving it.

It was difficult to imagine that elections would ‘sustain the flow of experience and knowledge’ the appointments system provides, ‘especially regarding those with a background in science and technology, business and industry,’ he continued. ‘To rise in the other place, you need first to make your way there in your 30s or early 40s. With the best will in the world, that is usually too soon and too young to have acquired fully professional depth in the laboratory or the boardroom.’

The Lords Reform Bill is a ‘rational, valuable and relatively readily implementable alternative’ if consensus is not reached on the Government’s forthcoming proposals for reform.

Constitutional statutes are, in effect, the Companies Acts of the British way of government, Lord Hennessy said in closing: ‘They are often what Bagehot called the “latent part of legislation”, laden with unanticipated implications for other parts of the British constitution and dripping with the possibility of unintended consequences. Their scrutiny calls for the most special care.’

Further information

The House of Lords Reform Bill – a private member’s Bill, introduced by Lord Steel of Aikwood – sets out proposals for reform the membership of the House of Lords. All recommendations for life peerages would be made by a Statutory Appointments Commission. Existing hereditary peers would no longer be replaced when they die. Members could apply to take permanent leave of absence, which would be the equivalent of retiring from the House of Lords. Members who failed to attend the House of Lords would be viewed as having taken permanent leave of absence. Members sentenced to more than a year in prison would no longer be members of the House of Lords.

Second reading is the first opportunity for Members of the Lords to debate the main principles and purpose of the Bill and to flag up concerns and areas where they think changes (amendments) are needed. Second reading usually takes place no less than two weekends after the first reading of a Bill.

The term ‘maiden speech’ refers to the first time a new Member gives a speech in the House of the Lords. A maiden speech usually takes place during a general debate and is uncontroversial.

    Image: Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield. © Queen Mary College, University of London

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