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Lords reform: back to the future

Want to know what happens when you lose control of the timetable of the Commons whilst trying to push through a controversial piece of legislation?  Want to know what ‘full and unrestrained scrutiny’ looks like?

Then take a look at the Parliament (No. 2) Bill.

Most people won’t have heard of it. Most of the participants are now long dead, and the Bill itself died in 1969, battered beyond repair.  It was the Maastricht of its day – except that Maastricht did at least manage to make it to the statute book.

The Parliament (No. 2) Bill was the Wilson government’s attempt at House of Lords reform.  A result of cross-party talks, just like today’s Bill it was criticized for being a dog’s breakfast.

Just like today, it was an issue where the party leaders attempted to lead, only to find that their followers refused to follow.  For the Conservatives Reggie Maudling gave his support to Richard Crossman’s White Paper on the subject, only then to find that most of his MPs did not share his views.  When the White Paper came before the Commons, a total of 47 Labour MPs defied their whip to vote against it.  Until today at least, that was the largest rebellion against Lords reform in the post-war era.  The Conservatives gave their MPs a free vote – as they were to do throughout the subsequent Bill’s passage – and Maulding watched as his MPs voted more than 2:1 against his own position.

Just as they will do today, the government achieved the bill’s Second Reading without too much trouble (although the hostility shown during the debate should have been a warning of what was to come), but then it entered its committee stage, on the floor of the House – and it never emerged.

With no automatic programming motions, the Government endured a torrid time, with backbench opponents on both sides moving hostile amendment after amendment.  All-night sitting followed all-night sitting, with the Government forced to resort to a series of closure motions to try to ensure that the Bill could proceed.  Between Second Reading in November 1968 and the final vote on the Bill in April 1969, the government suffered 45 separate backbench rebellions, spread over 80 hours of debate.  The end came after the nineteenth closure motion when the government failed to muster enough supporters to achieve closure.  With only five clauses of the Bill having been discussed, the Government gave up, exhausted.

Which is why the government need to secure a programme motion for their Lords reform bill.  There is – as I write – talk that they may pull the motion tonight – thus avoiding what looks like certain defeat and buying themselves more time to attempt to build consensus over a revised motion.  But whether it’s tonight, or later, they’ll need it at some point.

Philip Cowley

Published inBritish Politics

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