Danny Alexander speech to Electoral Reform Society Conference
Signing up to Coalition Government wasn’t easy.
It meant facing up to some very tough choices in the most difficult of circumstances.
Putting party differences aside and the national interest first in a joint commitment with the Conservatives to deal with the economic crisis, to tackle the deficit and put right the terrible economic legacy left to us by Labour.
The consequence of that big choice has been some very difficult decisions – many that I as Chief Secretary have had personally to take.
They have not been decisions that I have relished – I didn’t enter politics to cut spending.
It may not be easy, but I do so because it’s what both sides agree is the right thing to do.
It is the overriding priority that binds the two parties in this coalition together and will continue to do so until 2015.
We are united in our efforts towards our common goal of making our economy stable and getting our country back on the path to long term prosperity.
As we have shown again today, with our decision not to put fuel duty up this year.
Supporting hard– up families, keeping the economy safe.
It is my number one priority.
It is what I spend the overwhelming majority of my time working on.
But that doesn’t mean it has to be the only thing I consider important.
And neither is it the limit of this Government’s ambitions – nor should it be.
Let’s not forget – what surprised many about the coalition agreement was the fact that it didn’t settle for the lowest common denominator when it came to setting out our plans for the parliament, as many predicted a coalition would be forced to.
Instead, we set out an ambitious programme of reform.
For example, by making work pay for everyone – by raising the personal income tax threshold to £10,000 and radically reforming the benefits system; giving everyone a fair start in life – increasing early years support, reforming the education system, introducing a pupil premium, and measures to promote social mobility; committing to be the greenest government ever, supporting green growth through the Green Deal and Green Investment Bank.
And remember, we inherited not just an economic crisis from the last Labour government, but a crisis in the trust in our political system too.
Which is why the Coalition Agreement also set out the Government’s plans to clean up politics.
It says “We believe that out political system is broken. We urgently need fundamental political reform.”
So we have set to work.
Reforming party funding; introducing fixed term Parliaments to stop the dates of elections being fixed to suit the government; increasing accountability in public services through direct election of mayors and police commissioners; and it is why we are taking forward reform to the House of Lords.
Across every policy area, both parties in this Coalition continue to have a responsibility to deliver the reforms we set out – right to the end of this Parliament.
Because, even for those that don’t like to admit it, both partners in this coalition will be judged, not on the ambition of our rhetoric, but on how effectively we can continue to work together to implement the policies in the Coalition Agreement.
All of them.
Those who suggest that the whole of government can focus on delivering on only one thing at a time forget what reforms are already in progress across our public services – at precisely the same time as maintaining our relentless efforts to ensure our economy is on the right track.
Right across the political spectrum, we all have a responsibility to deliver reform to the House of Lords:
Because it is what we promised. Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, the Coalition Government, and yes, the Labour party too.
We all collectively should feel the pressure to deliver. Because it is what all political parties put in their manifestos.
And we should see that commitment through. Not because it is the number one thing that comes up on the doorstep, but because it is the right thing to do, because in a democracy law makers should be elected.
The case for reform is indisputable, and the time for action long overdue.
It was over 100 years ago that the Liberal Government’s call to curtail the power of the unelected Peers was supported by the people.
Asquith said in the first reading debate of the 1911 Parliament Act:
“We hold…that there ought to be a second chamber, and that it is a body, which unlike the House of Lords, rests not on an hereditary, but a popular basis.”
Churchill (then Liberal Home Secretary) wound up the debate.
Despite these lofty aspirations, various attempts to reform have failed:
The Bryce Report of 1918 – was not implemented.
Cross-Party Talks in 1948 – broke down.
The Labour Government of 1966– 70 – failed to implement their manifesto pledges.
The Royal Commission of 1999– 2000 – recommended options for electing peers that were not taken forward.
And White Papers in 2001, 2007 and 2008 failed to deliver a single elected peer.
The House of Lords hasn’t even been reformed to be fit for purpose for the 20th Century, let alone the 21st.
Of course, the move towards life peerages, and abolition of hereditary peers helped make some progress, and importantly made it possible for increased numbers of women to become members of the second chamber.
Today just over 20% of peers are women as opposed to less than 10% in 1988.
But is it really plausible to argue such limited progress is sufficient?
Particularly when these reforms fail to address the major point that law makers should be elected.
As a country, we have a proud tradition of peaceful and gradual democratic reform that goes back centuries.
But our failure to make progress on Lords reform means we have fallen behind.
We have the dubious honour of having a second chamber of the same ilk as Jordan, Belize, and Burkina Faso.
It’s not something to be proud of.
A second chamber stuffed with former politicians, cronies and lobbyists.
That is a living embodiment of the barriers to social mobility in this country.
And a second chamber that is growing in size and cost too.
The closer you look, I have to say, as a Liberal Democrat, the more embarrassing it gets.
Those who say an appointed second chamber rises about grubby partisan politics seem to ignore the inconvenient facts.
Many Peers fall into a category of people that Boris Johnson yesterday described as “has beens and never wozzas”.
More than a quarter of Peers are ex-MPs.
70% are appointed on a party political basis.
Which unsurprisingly means that they are almost as likely to vote according to the party whip as often as their colleagues in the commons.
Another argument used against reform is the importance of appointed Lords being able to provide an expert perspective to the legislative process.
The only problem is many of the “experts” are actually “ex” experts.
They might have been experts in their field in their day, but for many it has been many decades since they retired and the knowledge of their profession has become very out of date.
Whilst it is possible to ensure perspectives from all parts of the country have the opportunity to be represented in the Commons, the same cannot be said of our second chamber.
Members from London and the South East dominate.
Around 50% of Peers originate from these regions.
And they are not socially representative either.
Four times as many are over 90 as are under 40.
More than 60% were privately educated, and 40% of the total attended just 12 private schools.
It’s an outdated system. And it doesn’t come cheap.
Every single peer is entitled to £300 per day, tax free, just for turning up.
A right that they retain regardless of their attendance or performance for the rest of their lives.
And it’s getting more expensive with every year that goes by.
Without reform the number of peers will hit 1,000 within 10 years at the current rate of growth, making the House of Lords the biggest legislative body outside the Congress of the People’s Republic of China.
Of course, I freely admit the House of Commons is hardly perfect.
The expenses scandal exposed failings of individuals and a system that led too many people to behave as they liked, thinking they had a job for life.
Exactly what is offered to our life peers.
This crisis forced long overdue change to the House of Commons, and has resulted in greater transparency, accountability and reduced costs.
Reforms undertaken by the House itself, that will be supported by the government’s plans to reduce the number of MPs by 50.
So just as we support a House of Commons that modernises and is accountable to the people it serves, the House of Lords cannot be exempt from change if we are serious about delivering on our pledge to rebuild the bond between our politicians and the people they serve.
But our plans do not mean we will start with a blank sheet of paper.
We recognise that the House of Lords has many fine qualities worth preserving:
The capacity to take the long view.
A focus on making sure our legislation is of the highest standard.
The ability to put an alternative perspective.
Preserving these important qualities is not threatened by reform.
It is dependent on it.
A reformed House of Lords will command public confidence by giving the people the power to decide who acts in their name, by being more representative of the country at large, by ensuring that all members of it treat it as an important and responsible job, not membership of an elite and exclusive club.
There is much that needs to be put right.
And Liberal Democrats have perhaps the longest held and clearest views on exactly how we should proceed.
Views that we have promoted in this Government and that were evident in last year’s white paper and draft bill:
That the House of Lords should be mainly directly elected.
It should be significantly smaller.
That the first elections should be held in May 2015.
And that the primacy of the House of Commons should be maintained.
Of course, Parliament will be the first to learn of the details of the Governments plans.
But broadly speaking, our main proposals will be consistent with the White Paper and Draft Bill.
They reflect the valuable input from the Joint Committee and its report, which heavily informed and influenced our proposals.
And they remain driven by the fundamental principle of democratic representation.
However, especially during these times of austerity, it is crucial that reform has a price we can all afford.
We shouldn’t be increasing the overall costs of Parliament when ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet.
So at the very most, the increase in the day to day costs of a reformed, democratic House should be no more than the savings from reducing the number of MPs.
Moreover they should be sustainable and provide value for money for the taxpayer.
This parsimony is in stark contrast to the wildly inflated figures being thrown around by the opponents of reform.
I’m sure the public will be reassured that we’ve no plans to spend £100m holding an unnecessary referendum or a further £100m on staff for existing Peers.
The package we’ve drawn up is frugal but fair.
However, we’re not happy to just stop there.
I will be pushing to find other ways to reduce the burden on the taxpayer still further.
We may be clamping down on costs, but we are not holding back on ambition.
I am confident these are reforms we will deliver, because this government has learned the lessons why previous attempts at reform have failed.
Big reform agendas can only be delivered through broad consensus.
We will not allow the best to be the enemy of the good, and have made compromises where it will make the difference between taking a big step forward or going nowhere at all.
As a whole, this is a package that the Government is totally united in its strong commitment to deliver.
It is a package that will not be dependent on a referendum to proceed.
Because there is a distinction between proposals designed to help achieve consensus and proposals designed to deliver nothing except terminal delay to reform.
This Government is committed to completing the reform process within this parliament.
And whilst Labour may be tempted to support referendum calls because they think it is to their short term tactical advantage, they do so at their peril.
Do they really want to delay the reform that they themselves promised in their last general election manifesto?
Have they taken into account the consequences of having referenda on Lords and Scottish independence at the same time?
Do they wish to distract from a campaign as important as preserving the United Kingdom?
Can they convincingly explain why a Labour government abolished hereditary peerages without a referendum in 1999 – but that it is essential now?
And, if what I have heard today is correct, it is a disgrace that Labour MPs will be voting against the programme motion of the bill, sabotaging the reforms that they claim to support.
Whilst Lords reform is not a subject that comes up every day on the doorstep, when asked, there is a clear majority in favour of improvement on the status quo.
Research undertaken by YouGov found that a majority of people were in support of some reform to the House of Lords.
Presumably that is why every political party included such proposals in their General Election Manifestos.
Their research found:
69% favoured a reformed House of Lords with at least some members elected.
Only 5% supported the status quo.
But this should not be used as a justification for complacency – it is a good basis of support from which to make the public case.
And a good platform from which to launch our wider constitutional reform agenda.
Because we must go further if we are serious in our commitment to clean up politics and restore public confidence.
Boundary reform in the Commons and reforming the House of Lords represents good progress.
But we will not stop there.
We remain equally committed to cleaning up party funding.
And the work to go further on devolution and deliver greater localism is a continuous process.
These are reforms that we will continue to press for, and seek to achieve through consensus, just as we have done on Lords reform.
Jim Hacker once told Sir Humphrey Appleby in a discussion of the honours system that a system that was started in 1348 “was coming to the end of it’s trial period”.
After 100 years of debates, cross party talks, green papers, white papers, Command Papers and a Royal Commission.
It’s time to complete the “transitional” reforms that started over 100 years ago.
Tomorrow the Coalition Government will finally introduce a bill to reform the House of Lords.
I’m sure it will not signal the end of debate on this subject or even if it will signal the end of the beginning of debate.
But I am determined to honour the plans set out in the Manifesto I wrote and the Coalition Agreement I negotiated on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.
And this Government is totally united in its commitment to deliver.
After a century of delay it is time to fulfil the promises of Asquith, Lloyd George and yes Churchill too, finally to give the people a voice in their Lordships’ House.