Lords reform is widely seen as a hobbyhorse of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats –yet it is a Tory minister whose task is to push through the legislation to transform parliament’s upper house.
Indeed, aides to Mr Clegg have jokingly referred to it as “the Mark Harper bill” in their attempts to downplay the idea that the deputy prime minister is obsessedby removing the unelected peers.
Mr Harper has a delicate task in front of him; steering through a full shake-up of the Lords which has evaded other politicians for a century.
A press officer warns the FT that the minister keeps his office at a low temperature: but this habit may not prepare him for the frosty reception he will face in parliament during next year’s legislative marathon.
Peers and MPs of all parties have already lined up to oppose the bill. Even if it passes through the Commons without mishap it is likely to be ambushed by the combined forces of Tory, Labour, and even some Lib Dem peers.
There could be a repeat of the filibustering and all-night sittings dominated the Lords in the spring of 2011 over the alternative vote bill.
Nick Clegg has threatened to use the Parliament Act to force it through, but weeks of debate are expected, taking up large amounts of next year’s political calendar.
Mr Harper tells the FT that bill should not take up a “disproportionate” amount of time: but warns potential trouble-makers:
“I don’t think the public would understand if people told the public they don’t care hugely about this legislation but then let it (in-fighting) damage the rest of the programme,” he says.
Even David Cameron once said he saw Lords reform as a “third term issue”, implying it was a very low priority. But Mr Harper says the prime minister is fully signed up to the current proposals: “He has made it very clear we are committed to doing it.”
Thatis not the case with countless backbenchers who prefer the status quo. At a “bloodbath”meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee on Thursday some 40 MPs spoke out against the reforms – with only one voicing support – while some junior aides have warned they could quit. Even some senior cabinet ministers are privately opposed to the whole idea. The capable and ambitious Mr Harper must be feeling the pressure; but he insists the opposition has been exaggerated:
“You tend to find the ones that are the loudest are the ones that are not very happy but we have some people who are pro reform, Laura Sandys, John Stevenson, Martin Vickers,” the minister says, citing what may be a small minority of his party.
The argument against the plans is well-rehearsed; that the Lords is full of peoplewith life experience, drawn from industry, the arts and the sciences, who will be thrown out and replaced with party drones who cannot get into the Commons.
But Mr Harper says this picture is wrong and that 70 per cent of the current Houseare “party appointees” already:
“They are under the party whip and they vote along with the party whip pretty much as often as the Commons,” he points out. “The idea that they all have more life experience than people in the House of Commons is only true in so far as they are older.”
A phalanx of cross-benchers will be kept, at 20 per cent of the total upper chamber, retaining many of those peers who genuinely do have outside experience, he adds.
The transition period for the change is a lengthy 15 years, with the first elections in 2015. Departing peers will not get any payoff – against the wishes of many – but will be given “club rights” to revisit Parliament’s bars and restaurants. “This will be done more respectfully than when the hereditaries went and it was a question of ‘goodbye’ overnight,” says Mr Harper.
The coalition is minded to accept the recommendation by the joint committee on Lords reform (which unveils its report at a press conference at 11am on Monday) that the most lazy peers are removed first. “The most active members will be the last to go,” says the minister.
As for the committee’s other recommendations: the minister suggests the government will accept its call for 450 peers rather than 300; he is cool on its idea of “youth peers“; and he (like Nick Clegg) is opposed to a referendum. A plebiscite on the reforms was in Labour’s manifesto but would create a schism within the coalition – as Lib Dems fear it would create insurmountable delays.
He says that the idea of a pay-off of up to £30,000 for those quitting the Lords – as suggested by former Liberal leader Lord Steel – is a “bizarre” idea which would not be stomached by the public at a time of austerity.
Mr Harper says there is a “very good chance” that in 2015 the first batch of elected senators will take their place in the upper chamber, with the departure of some peers and bishops.
“I think Parliament is strengthened by these proposals, I don’t accept the argument that if you make the House of Lords more legitimate you undermine the House of Commons, we are protecting the primacy of the House of Commons,” he says.
He puts a positive spin on today’s report ahead of its publication (it will not be released until late morning) saying that its 26 members are in rough agreement about the thrust of the changes.
“There was talk when we first started about would they actually back reform at all….but they broadly back what we are doing,” he says. “You wouldn’t expect me to say we’re going to accept their recommendations in full…but they’ve done a really thorough job.”