Lords reform committee backs referendum
23 April 2012
There is a strong case against holding a referendum on reforming the House of Lords, the Prime Minister David Cameron has said, and his deputy Nick Clegg has backed him on the issue – but the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill has disagreed with them both.
The majority of the committee recommended that the decision to elect members of the House of Lords should be submitted to a referendum. Now senior researchers at University College London's (UCL) constitution unit have said the government will not be able to resist pressures for a referendum.
"There is a strong case against a Lords reform referendum," Cameron told the BBC. "The case is that it will cost a lot of money and because all three parties are in favour it doesn't strike me as an incredibly powerful argument. But this is something that is going to be discussed and debated in parliament so it shouldn't be ruled out of hand."
However, the MPs said: "The committee recommends that, in view of the significance of the constitutional change brought forward for an elected House of Lords, the government should submit the decision to a referendum."
The UCL's unit deputy director and Lords reform expert Dr Meg Russell commented: "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."
And the 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."
Presenting to the committee, Unlock Democracy's Peter Facey was not sure that a referendum would help.
"I am not sure that the turmoil would be any less if we had a referendum," he said. "All it will do is that the issue over which there is a fight will be different – it will be over the terms of the referendum and there will be clauses on whether there should be a super-majority, for example. The idea that simply by having a referendum you will save time in parliament and will all be able to move on, leaving it to the electorate, is a nice one, but from previous experience I do not think that it would happen."
Stressing the need for a straightforward question to be put to voters, Baroness Hayman said: "At the moment there are so many issues that it would be very difficult to focus the public debate on how to go forward."
The Electoral Reform Society didn't see any need for a referendum and Professor Sir John Baker QC told the committee: "Whenever you are faced with a single question in a referendum, you immediately want to say, 'Well, yes if this, but no if that'. I am not sure how you could frame the question."
However, Christopher Hartigan, who described himself as "a member of the public with an interest in constitutional matters and Lords Reform in particular", said: "The fact that elections were mentioned in the three manifestoes does not mean it is the settled view of a party, it is not, or the majority of members of a party agree with it or that the electorate want it either. It can be said that the fact that it was in three manifestos makes it clear that the people had no choice. It should also be remembered all three parties lost the election. ... If the government believe this is the will of the people then it should proceed on a free vote of their representatives or hold a constitutional referendum before such important changes are made."