Writing exclusively for PoliticsHome, Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan warns the Coalition its plan for House of Lords reform "still falls short" of what Labour wants.
The much anticipated House of Lords Reform Bill was published yesterday. In a week when official figures revealed that we are borrowing record amounts and at a time when people up and down the country are worried about their jobs, their children, their standard of living and the future it is understandable why there is confusion at the Government's priorities.
If Labour was in Government right now, our priorities would be reflecting the worry and challenge facing families up and down the country. But as the official opposition, what's in the Government's legislative agenda is not in our gift. Reform of the Lords is the centrepiece of their legislative programme, so it is our job to respond.
The Labour manifesto, on which I stood for election, in 2010 included a commitment to create a wholly elected House of Lords. Our position has not shifted in the intervening two years. We've been consistent in calling for a 100% democratically elected second chamber and I have offered on many occasions to work with the Government in order to improve their proposals and reach consensus.
Patronage has no role in a modern democracy. It should not be in the gift of the leaders of the main political parties to decide who sits in the second chamber. Those who play a role in the process of legislating should themselves be democratically accountable to those subjected to the laws of the land.
Issues of major constitutional significance should also be put to the people in a referendum. But the Bill doesn't propose to do this. It's not clear why the Government believes that holding a referendum on the biggest constitutional change since universal franchise is not necessary. Labour, quite rightly, held referendums on devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and on the creation of a Mayor and an Assembly in London. We even lost a vote on the establishment of a regional assembly in the North East of England. Despite having our fingers burnt, we still retain a belief in the role of referendums in major constitutional change. If a bill to reform radically the structure and composition of Parliament doesn't merit a referendum than what does? Even the Joint Committee - appointed by Nick Clegg to look into House of Lords Reform and on whose report the Deputy Prime Minister placed great store – unanimously said that there should be a referendum.
Let me be clear, Labour believes in House of Lords reform. In a modern democracy like Britain, it is indefensible for a legislative chamber to be unelected. Britain has a bicameral democracy and we unambiguously believe that both chambers should derive their mandate from the people.
Because we believe in the principle of reform of the Second Chamber we will help the government get a second reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill. It's only proper that Labour – the party with an unparalleled track record in reform of the House of Lords – should continue in this vein and back moves to reform the House of Lords.
But our support is not a blank cheque to the coalition partners. The Bill as published yesterday still falls short of the reforms we would like to see.
The second chamber should be wholly elected, not four-fifths elected as set out in the Bill. The Government has not thought about and set out clearly the functions of the second chamber, nor adequately addressed the Conventions that govern the relationship between the Commons and the Lords. Both of these risk the wheels of Parliament grinding to a halt – a scenario we need to do all in our power to avoid.
And there are a range of prickly issues which the House of Commons must properly debate – such as the position of the Bishops, the type of electoral system to be used, the length of terms, whether they should be renewable, the size of the constituencies, the cost of the new Chamber and the transitional arrangement for those current members of the House of Lords.
With so many issues still requiring parliamentary scrutiny – and with this Bill being of such major constitutional significance – the amount of time MPs have to discuss the details is crucial. Guillotining debate as the Government effectively wants to do is a mistake. Such a straitjacket would allow those who seek to wreck the Bill the chance to filibuster debate, preventing discussion of key parts of the bill. It could lead to important matters being left not properly debated. We want the chance to debate, scrutinise, amend and ultimately improve the Bill. That's why we've made it clear we will oppose the Programme timetable the Government is suggesting for debate of the Bill.
The Government can't have it both ways. On the one hand, denying the public their say on these reforms by not holding a referendum. On the other, denying the public's representatives a proper chance to debate these plans by way of their programme motion.
We support reform of the House of Lords. We are willing to work with progressives within government to help bring about much needed change to the House of Lords. Pious hectoring and continual refusals to engage constructively is not the way to build a consensus. History tells us that Opposition Parties have opposed change, often for the sake of doing so. We have not followed the norm. Our decision to support giving this Bill a Second Reading means we remain true to our principles. Giving sufficient time to debate the Bill will ensure we can be a responsible Opposition and work to improve the reforms.