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Westminster Reflections

WestminsterI have fielded so many questions on the subject over the past few weeks that I thought I would begin by reflecting on some of the differences between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  I do so not to give readers of Diplomat a lesson in British constitutional history, but because I know that there is widespread interest and curiosity.

Let me begin with one very real difference in custom: in the dining room of the House of Commons the political parties sit separately.  I am not quite sure how much intermingling there is between the two partners in the Coalition, but in the 40 years I was an elected Member, the Conservatives sat at one end of the dining room, the Labour party at the other, and in the middle there were tables for the Liberal Democrats, those from Northern Ireland, and the Clerks. There was plenty of opportunity for gossip with one’s political allies, but none with colleagues of a different persuasion.

In the House of Lords it is very different.  In all three main dining rooms there is what is known as a ‘long table’, where you take your place alongside whoever is sitting there, no matter what the political affiliation, or lack of it.  And remember that in the House of Lords, there are almost 200 independent Peers, (the cross benchers) and 26 Bishops of the Church of England.  In the few weeks that I have been there I have had fascinating, and stimulating, conversations with, to misquote the Book of Common Prayer, ‘all sorts and conditions of Peers’.

To pretend that there is no political rivalry in the Lords would be absurd but, for the most part, there is a much more even temper in discussions.  That is because Peers are not constantly having to worry about party discipline, and what might happen at the next General Election, or what the party hierarchy thinks.

The spirit of genuine friendliness and camaraderie that exists in the Lords is indeed very much a consequence of the extraordinary mixture of people in our House.  Many are former MPs, and there are others who are there for long service to their party.  But alongside these, and not merely on the Cross Benches (Professor Robert Windsor is, after all, a Labour Peer) there are men and women from all walks of life who have been distinguished in their chosen profession or occupation, and who are there because of their experience and expertise.

Paradoxically, the House of Lords is much more a microcosm of the nation than the House of Commons, in this respect.  There are, for instance, more members from the ethnic communities, and significantly more disabled Members, than in the Commons. Such a social composition would be impossible to achieve if the House of Lords were elected.

Not only are there these startling differences in composition of the two Houses, but there are also significant differences in procedure.  The House of Commons sits under its own presiding officer, the Speaker, who decides which Members will speak. The House of Lords is a self-regulating House.  If you want to ask a question you stand in your place and seek to put it, and there is an implicit acceptance of the fact that each party, or group, must have its turn.  And when it comes to speaking in debates you put your name down, and you know you will speak.  The only thing you do not know is what number you will be in the ‘batting order’ for the day.  In the Commons you can spend hours jumping up and down hoping to ‘catch the Speaker’s eye’, and often in vain.

When it comes to the legislative process, the House of Lords operates, I believe, far more effectively than the House of Commons.  Of recent years it has been the custom of governments to determine how long each Bill will have for its Committee Stage, and the consequence is often that sizable chunks of a Bill are not adequately discussed, or sometimes not even discussed at all.  In the Lords there is no such timetabling.  If you put down an amendment you know it will be selected for debate.  The greatest difference of all, of course, is that the House of Lords does not have the power to do more than to ask the House of Commons to think again about a Measure or, if it comes to the crunch, to delay the passage of a Bill for more than a year.  The elected House always has the final word – and that is just as it should be.

This means that the two Houses are complementary and are not, at the end of the day, fiercely competitive.  For in any true competition either side could win.  In Parliament only one side can win, and that is the elected House.  There is, however, just one area where the Houses are more equal than in others.  The House of Lords has always been seen as ‘a guardian of the constitution’. For the one ultimate power it has, is to prevent any government seeking to prolong its own life; there the House of Lords retains a veto.

When it comes to the composition and function of the second chamber, the Lords has not only a right, but a bounden duty, to examine any proposals for  reform with the utmost care, and the right to contest as vigorously as it can any proposals for its abolition and its replacement. For such a move would fundamentally alter the balance of power within our constitutional monarchy.  That is something that no government should undertake lightly, or wantonly.



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