Lord Lisvane: “The two Houses are best when they are operating in a complementary way, not competing”
Lord Lisvane talks to Gary Connor about ‘impractical’ proposals to move the Lords to York, why the Government’s pledge to set-up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission needs ‘political buy-in’ – and how many questions about the review remain to be answered
Could peers soon be booted out of Westminster and find a new home in York? According to recent newspaper reports, it may be on the cards. But Lord Lisvane has suspicions that the plans “haven’t really been thought through”. The crossbench peer – who, as Sir Robert Rogers, was clerk of the House of Commons and its chief executive for three years – knows better than most how Parliament’s two chambers function together.
When he was in post there were 24 different services shared between the two Houses. Lisvane gives me two examples; that the Lords looks after archiving and records, with the Commons taking on responsibility for estate management. They would need to be split if the chamber was to be relocated. It’s likely to come with a hefty price tag attached.
“I find it difficult to see, when there are arrangements to put us into the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, what the value for money of building a new chamber – with committee rooms, with accommodation for officials, with members offices, with visitors, security arrangements, 200 miles away – would be,” he tells The House.
It’s impossible to know what it would cost, other than being “very expensive” he suggests, and is likely to have implications on Parliament’s ability to scrutinise the executive.
“The two Houses are best when they are operating in a complementary way, not competing,” he continues. “To have the House of Lords miles and miles away from the government departments who want to engage with it seems to me to be pretty impractical.”
The proposals have emerged as part of the Conservatives’ pledge to set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, which the Prime Minister says is needed to “restore trust in our institutions and our democracy”. Lisvane has tabled a question in the House of Lords tomorrow to ask the government when they expect it to be established. Ministers so far have given little away, which Lisvane suspects is because debate about its format and remit is still going on behind the scenes. There are suggestions that, amongst other things, it could be used to limit the powers of the Supreme Court.
“One of the difficulties about constitutional change in this country is that we always do it patchwork,” he tells me over coffee. “So doing it in a holistic way, as the title of the commission seems to suggest, is welcome.”
However, Lisvane points out that many questions about the proposed review remain unanswered – such as its remit, priorities and the resources it will have.
Some other areas that could be covered include issues relating to electoral law and digital democracy, where Lisvane says significant work has already taken place, so progress could be made “very quickly”. But other aspects, like any sort of reform to the House of Lords, is likely to take time he suggests.
“If it's going to be at all authoritative, then it needs to be very thorough and take account of a huge range of views. It needs to do a great deal of unglamorous, backroom work. If you’re going to be thorough, you probably can't be quick,” he says.
Lisvane thinks it would be “natural” for the commission to take evidence in public hearings, which by its nature “would take more time and effort”.
I ask whether he agrees that this review could be seen as the Government’s attempt to clip the wings of institutions it has clashed with in recent months, such as the judiciary.
“That’s what’s got this onto the radar. But there’s a difference between having something on the radar and having it acquired as a target,” he replies.
In order for it to be effective, Lisvane continues, the commission must have “political buy-in”. But he says it would be “worrying” if the government thought that it could “mark its card from the outset”.
“Before anyone can make a judgement, we need further and better particulars. We need to know what the Government’s got in mind. At the moment, we don’t.”