Peers under pressure
First Published 18 February 2016
Westminster mole -LPW’s parliamentary correspondent reports.
Casual observers of the parliamentary process are unlikely to monitor the day-to-day goings on of the Lords with the same level of attention they do the Commons. Despite the vast number of peers (743 compared to 646 MPs), the political heavyweights -Mandelson aside -tend to be installed in the Commons. And there is no set piece event as entertaining as Prime Minister’s Questions to attract an audience.
Every now and then, however, peers do attract the spotlight by posing a serious threat to government legislation on controversial issues such as abortion or 42-day detention. But with proposals for further Lords reform having been omitted from December’s Queen’s Speech, peers could be forgiven for starting 2016 in the belief that they could get on with their business in comfortable semi-obscurity.
But it was not to be. The ‘lords for hire’ scandal has pushed the second chamber centre stage -and if the controversy rumbles on, peers could find themselves attracting more than their normal share of (unwelcome) attention.
Corruption issues aside, the scandal has provoked a wave of questions about the broader significance of the Lords as an institution. Journalists, fleshing out their coverage, have been ruminating on what their lordships do all day and what kind of influence they wield. It turns out they do actually have some power.
That the Lords plays a vital part in forming public policy and legislation will not surprise anyone who has been following housing developments in parliament during the past few months. While it may be the case that no one has been paying peers to raise housing issues in the Lords, they have been doing so all by themselves.
Housing is one of those specialist issues that very much benefits from a level of professional expertise rarely found in the Commons but out in force on the Lords’ benches. When a particularly technical bill goes through parliament, it tends to be put through the Lords first -where it can get the kind of expert scrutiny and sophisticated debate it needs before passing to the broader, more political, attentions of the Commons.
‘Peers have been doing a good job raising housing in the Lords, despite the fact they’ve not been paid to’
This has been the case with the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, which as LPW goes to press is subject to the attentions of a Lords’ committee. This bill deals with the thorny issues of reforms to regional governance and local democratic systems, as well as allowing the national tenant voice -first proposed in the Cave report -to be established.
The attentions of Sally Hamwee with her 30 years’ experience in local government and planning, and of Richard Best, with several decades of experience in housing policy, will provide immeasurable benefit to this legislation and all those affected by it. The fact that peers do not vote on amendments, but instead operate by consensus, means that they can have a more nuanced debate, unfettered by political wranglings
Somewhere down the red-carpeted hall, another committee is busy examining the government reforms to mortgage interest support. Driven by admirable motives, the government hopes that the reforms will provide more help for people under threat of repossession. But any semi-emergency measure runs the risk of creating unintended consequences in the rush to get changes through. And this is where the Lords merits of statutory instruments committee comes into the picture.
Yes, this is not the most glamorous end of political life. But long after the newspaper editorials have kept the chill off tomorrow’s fish and chips, someone has to make sure that worthy-sounding policies will, in real life, amount to more than headlines.