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Lords reform is needed but an elected second chamber must not threaten the primacy of the Commons


Lord Morris

Lord Morris

4 min read

The Gordon Brown Commission for Constitutional Reform has done sterling work.

I completely agree that the unelected House of Lords is completely indefensible. While the Commission reports that the second chamber should compliment the House of Commons, it fails to put forward proposals to sustain the primacy of the House of Commons.

I envisage the argument going backwards and forwards as to how this can be achieved, and the next Labour government, like the coalition government, might give up in desperation. Constitutional reform as a priority would endanger the bread and butter issues which should be paramount for any Labour government.

Any newly-elected body representing the devolved nations and the regions would fight to enhance its powers

Unless there are water-tight proposals to ensure the primacy of the Commons, any newly-elected body representing the devolved nations and the regions would fight to enhance its powers over the years.

A few years ago, I was part of a British-American delegation to the United States.  We happened to be there when there was a government shutdown. The civil administration came to a standstill and, if I recollect correctly, even airport staff could not be paid, such was the paralysis.

While I welcomed the aims of the Burns Report to reduce the scandalously inflated number of Members sitting in the Lords, I failed to support it in the lobby. There was no mechanism to stop the grim truth that a prime minister could continue to add to the numbers in the Lords, without restriction, relying on Crown privilege.

Several years’ ago, the late Lord Mayhew and I, as former attorney generals, were invited to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee on the use of Crown privilege to allow the prime minister to go to war without seeking the consent of Parliament. The committee agreed with us that its use in this context was out-dated, and, in the main, governments since that time have sought the approval of the House of Commons before going to war.

In the same way, I firmly believe that a prime minister’s use of Crown privilege to nominate additional members of the House of Lords is outdated.

While I am not minded to suggest machinery for a second chamber – this is an issue for considerable argument – I am concerned about the effects of an elected second chamber on the primacy of the House of Commons.

Reinforcing the supremacy of the House of Commons could be achieved by a simple amendment to the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 by curtailing the delaying powers for non-money bills.  The 1911 Act allowed the House of Lords up to two years delay. The 1949 Act reduced the delaying powers to one year. 

Ultimately, the House of Commons can pass bills without the consent of the Lords. Bills prolonging the length of a Parliament are not subject to the Parliament Acts.  This is an important constitutional safeguard. My proposal would be to abolish the delegating powers altogether.

The new system would work in the following way: A House of Commons initiated bill, once passed, would go to the Lords for consideration. The Lords would then have the power to pass amendments and give the Commons time to further consider the issues raised by the Lords’ amendments. Given the pressure on the Commons to limit discussion – resulting in undigested bills being send to the Lords – this could be a valuable opportunity for the Commons to reconsider legislation.

Having considered the amendments, the Commons could proceed to Royal Assent without any restriction. The Commons, having reflected, would have its primacy re-enforced. The Lords would not be seen to compete or restrain the Commons. The Lords would have one bite at the cherry, which would allow for further consideration by the Commons and hopefully result in better legislation.

The remaining issue is the machinery for appointments to the Lords which is crying out for reform. It goes without saying that the aim is a smaller House of Lords.


Lord Morris, Labour peer. 

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