Friday, 20 July 2007

The Fabian Approach to Reform

Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (c 275BC - 203BC) was a Roman General who overcame the military superiority of the Carthaginians by a policy of determined attrition. In England his name was taken up by a group of socialists who argued that slower parliamentary change would be more effective in the long run than revolutionary action. The Fabian Society has played a key role in the establishment and development of the Labour Party.

Jack Straw didn't say it, but he has adopted a Fabian strategy for Lords Reform. Cross-party talks will continue, with a White Paper expected at the turn of the year. Consultation within parliament and outside should allow the Government to "to formulate a comprehensive reform package which we would put to the electorate as a manifesto commitment at the next general election, and which we hope the other main parties will include in their manifestos. There may of course be areas upon which each party takes a different view, but I believe that there is the potential to reach a degree of cross-party consensus which could lead to the completion of Lords reform."

The broad approach of the reform was set out - "we have to proceed with remodelling our work based on an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House of Lords. While there is agreement on some of the areas outlined in the White Paper, there is still some way to go on others. So the group will be discussing the outstanding elements of the reform package, including powers, electoral systems, financial packages, balance and size of the House, including diversity and gender issues. We will also need to discuss the transition towards a reformed House in detail, including the position of existing life Peers and the need for action to avoid gratuitously cutting Conservative Party representation in the Lords when and if the remaining hereditary Peers are removed.

Let me now turn to the powers of a reformed House. The Government have always said that the balance of powers between the two Houses described by the excellent and recent Cunningham report should apply to a reformed House. These powers are currently underpinned by some statutory provisions, standing orders and conventions. We undertook to look further at whether the current conventions were adequate to ensure the desired relationship with a reformed House after the free votes. Over the coming months, we will be looking at how best to deliver a substantially or wholly elected House, based on the principle that this House is the primary Chamber and that an elected House of Lords should complement the Commons and not be a rival to it. As part of that programme of work it is vital that the relative powers of a reformed House are made clear. We will therefore be looking at ways to enshrine in a constitutional settlement the current balance of powers and the different roles of the two Houses."

Some were not happy with the slowness of this approach. In the Lords Lord Tyler noted, "In Cornwall, we have the word “dreckly”. It is much used by plumbers and others in the sense that the Spanish use the word “mañana”, but with less urgency. After 95 years, it is fair to say that today’s Statement does not take us one step further. It fulfils the promise made by the Prime Minister that there would be a Statement, but scarcely takes us further than that."

But others though it went too far. Lord Howe of Aberavon was troubled. "Does the Minister appreciate that, although the response of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde in that context may be admirable for its courage, it is the response of a suicide bomber? He is prepared with all his hereditary colleagues to proclaim their destruction provided that all the rest of the plans go through. I hope that both the Minister and my noble friend will take account of the fact that, if the hereditaries are doubtful about following my noble friend into suicide, the great majority of the rest of us have even less enthusiasm for that cause.

Does the Minister understand that, in the Green Paper and his Statement today, to describe the Conservative Party as being committed to a substantially elected House of Lords is wholly unfounded? The actual words of the manifesto are:

“We will seek cross-party consensus for a substantially elected House of Lords”.

Does he appreciate that the difficulty of that task for the Conservative Party, if it understands its own Back Benches as my noble friend wishes to do, is expressed in the fact that an overwhelming majority of the party in this House and a majority of the party in the other House do not wish to see a substantially elected House of Lords? Does he not appreciate that that deserves to be regarded as a substantial obstacle? Is the obstacle not worth respecting?
Everyone who has spoken so far has paid tribute to the immense quality of the work done in this place. The suicide bombers, therefore, are suicidal not merely in reflecting themselves; the suicide bombers, as so often, are going destroy the building in which they are found, without any rational argument at all having been advanced for that action being taken. Suicide bombers generally are insane as well."

It's going to be an interesting, if long battle, but Jack Straw was clear, "The Government are determined to proceed with this programme of reform with a view to its completion."