A clash between the Government and the House of Lords over Brexit has been long-expected. Neither can be surprised about where they are now. However, frustrations with the amendments on the EU Withdrawal bill going through in the Lords and the implications for its return to the Commons have again brought out calls for the second chamber to be reformed.
These arguments will generate headlines, but it is less likely that they actually lead to proper reform of the House. One only has to look at the recent history of the Conservative and Coalition governments to see how they have repeatedly ducked the issue. Few think that the Lords does not need reform. It is heavily over-populated, but both David Cameron and Theresa May – to varying degrees – sought to put in more Conservative peers rather than tackle full-on reform.
In 2012, it was Conservative MPs who brought down the most serious attempt at reform in recent years under the Coalition government when they rebelled against the Nick Clegg-led initiative. In 2015 there were again Conservative calls for reform after Cameron’s post-coalition government was defeated by the Lords on tax credits. But that review ended up being focused on a specific issue of how the Lords dealt with secondary legislation. It again failed to tackle the far more important issues of size and make-up.
Last year, peers themselves gave Theresa May’s government the opportunity to commit to reform. Lord Burns review provided a non-legislative means for reform in an attempt to avoid the disputed issues that keep undermining legislative agreement. May pledged to keep appointments to a minimum and has so far not tried to pack the Lords with extra Conservative peers as heavily as Cameron did, but with Brexit to deliver in the context of the loss of her majority in the Commons, fully committing to reform was again a bridge too far.
The ever-increasing size of the Lords is becoming a risk to its effectiveness and credibility. But this has been evident for years. Successive governments – both Labour and Conservative – have failed on the issue of what to do with the Lords. Discovering now that it requires ‘root and branch’ reform is disingenuous. We should not be surprised that the Lords is choosing to play a role in the biggest piece of legislation the country has faced in many decades, and the country needs a healthy and productive second chamber. Certainly it is too large, some of its procedures are idiosyncratic and, in the case of Brexit, its role is contested, but if the Government and Conservative MPs suddenly feel the flaws in the Lords are too much to bear, they have only themselves to blame.