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Lords reform referendum unavoidable

2 April 2012

The government will not be able to resist pressures for a referendum on Lords reform following the report of a key parliamentary committee, say senior researchers at UCL’s respected Constitution Unit.

Unit Deputy Director and Lords reform expert Dr Meg Russell said “Now that the joint committee has recommended that the government’s proposals be put to a referendum, pressure to concede this will become irresistible. The referendum already has support from the Labour leadership and many Conservative backbench MPs. If pressed to a vote on the issue in the Commons, the government would almost certainly lose.”

Nor can defensible arguments against the referendum proposal necessarily be found.

Unit Director Professor Robert Hazell said “Arguing against a referendum is certainly difficult politically. It’s also difficult to resist on principled grounds. An elected House of Lords is a much bigger change than AV for the House of Commons, on which a referendum was held last year. And referendums are about to be held around the country on the lesser question of elected mayors. Nick Clegg’s claim that a referendum is unnecessary because Lords reform was in all three party manifestos is not very persuasive. Precisely because it was in all three manifestos the voters can say that they haven’t been offered a choice.”

The question of whether a referendum would be won is tricky. Meg Russell said “The polls consistently suggest that the public favour an elected second chamber, rather than an appointed one. But they also show strong support for the relatively ‘independent’ and ‘expert’ nature of the Lords. The danger for Nick Clegg is that this turns into a ‘no more elected politicians’ referendum.” (For some polling figures see notes at end.)

The government must now decide whether to concede a referendum before the bill is introduced, or to offer this as a concession during the bill’s passage through parliament. The bill will dominate the next session, with endless days of debate on the floor of the Commons. The first big test will be whether the government can win the programme motion limiting the amount of parliamentary time devoted to the bill. It will also face great pressure on:

  • The Lords’ powers, and protecting the primacy of the Commons;
  • The proportion of members elected, with pressure from some to increase this to 100%;
  • The nature of the electoral system;
  • The 15 terms proposed for elected members;
  • The continued presence of bishops in the second chamber.

Meg Russell said “Any of these issues could cause huge difficulties on the floor of the House of Commons, with widespread concerns amongst Conservative MPs in particular. The referendum question is just one of the many potentially insuperable hurdles that the government will face.”

Notes for editors

The Constitution Unit is an independent and non-partisan research centre based at University College London, recognised as the UK’s leading centre of expertise on reform of the House of Lords. For details see: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/parliament/house-of-lords

Dr Meg Russell has written widely on the Lords and its reform, and is currently writing her second book on the subject. She is available for interview: contact meg.russell@ucl.ac.uk

The report of the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill was published today, Monday 23 April. See: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/draft-house-of-lords-reform-bill/news/publication-of-report/

Various polling organisations have found support in principle for an elected second chamber. For example:

  • A poll by Angus Reid in November 2011 found that 56% supported “allowing people to directly elect their Lords” (while 29% were “not sure”, and 15% opposed).
  • The same poll found 63% support for holding a referendum on Lords reform.
  • Likewise a Populus poll in 2006 for The Times found that 72% agreed that “At least half of the members of the House of Lords should be elected so that the upper chamber of Parliament has democratic legitimacy”, but at the same time 75% agreed that “The House of Lords should remain a mainly appointed house because this gives it a degree of independence from electoral politics and allows people with a broad range of experience and expertise to be involved”.
  • This second kind of question has much more rarely been asked. A poll by Mori for the Constitution Unit in 2007 similarly found that 90% of respondents considered presence of many “experts” to be important to the legitimacy of the House of Lords, and 83% considered presence of “numerous independent members” to be important.
  • For a summary of polls see here: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/LLN-2012-006

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