Lords have begun debating the Article 50 Bill. With 191 speakers lined up and plenty of amendments tabled, it’s a fascinating moment for democracy and Britain’s constitution.
What we’re witnessing is this: legislation that resulted from a form of direct democracy (a referendum) – and which itself followed a battle over whether Parliament should get a vote on it at all – is now being debated (and potentially amended or delayed) in Britain’s unelected upper house.
We’ve seen direct democracy battle with representative democracy, we’ve seen the Commons battle the Executive – and now we could be seeing MPs and the government clash with the Lords. Make sure you stock up on popcorn.
First things first. It’s understandable that peers on both sides want to have their say on legislation – after all that is what they are there for.
But most voters agree it would be wrong for Peers to try and disrupt the Brexit process. The upper chamber simply doesn’t have any legitimacy to scrutinise let alone block legislation given that it is totally unelected.
We’ve also heard threats (albeit later downplayed) from the government and senior MPs to reform of the Lords – or even abolition – if they try and disrupt this Bill.
But Lords reform shouldn’t be something that’s just wheeled out to intimidate Peers any time they go against the wishes of government. It should be part of a real plan for democratic reform after Brexit.
Because regardless of what Lords do when it comes to Article 50, serious reform of the upper chamber has to be on the table – not as a threat in the event that Peers try and amend the Brexit bill, but as a positive step in genuinely ‘taking back control’ for British voters.
We do need a revising chamber to scrutinise vital bills like this. But given that the Article 50 bill is of such huge constitutional importance, those voting on it should be chosen by voters themselves.
Needless to say, it would be a sorry irony indeed if ‘take back control’ meant simply handing power to unelected Lords. A big theme of the EU referendum was democracy, so we need to put those words into practice and bring power back to voters here.
Just one in ten voters support the current chamber as it is. So whatever happens this week, we’d be more than happy to work with the government on reforming the Lords…
Brexit Bill or no Brexit Bill – the time is now for sorting out our broken, bloated and archaic second chamber.