Labour's dealings with peer pressure

February 27, 1998

Huw Richards assesses how reform of the House of Lords could affect higher education

REFORMING the House of Lords has bubbled away in the background of British politics for most of this century.

Since the 1911 Parliament Act radically reduced the upper house's powers in the wake of the rejection of Lloyd George's 1909 budget, there have been only two significant changes: the 1949 Parliament Act's reduction of Lords' delaying powers and the introduction of life peerages in 1958.

But it looks as if serious reform is at last likely. Labour's manifesto for the general election last May included a commitment to reform, and the government hopes to bring forward legislation in the next Queen's Speech.

Academic interest will extend far beyond political scientists. As government has sought to extend its powers over higher education, the institutions have looked to the Lords to protect them. Twice, in 1988 and 1992, Lords' resistance forced the Conservatives to drop plans to extend the secretary of state's powers over higher education. Now Labour faces Lords' opposition to its sweeping measures to prohibit top-up fees.

One immediate question is whether reform will happen. The recent death of Enoch Powell revived memories of the last serious bid - the Parliament (no 2) Bill of 1969, introduced by Harold Wilson's government and lacerated beyond repair by backbenchers led by Mr Powell and Michael Foot.

Tim Lamport, who is researching a doctoral thesis on Lords reform at Queen Mary Westfield College, London, says: "The Wilson government made the mistake of introducing it in the late stages of a Parliament. It was a complex measure and as a constitutional bill it had to be taken on the floor of the house. When it ran into trouble, in particular backbench criticism of the patronage elements, the government already had so much else on its plate that it chose to cut its losses and drop the bill."

First stage of reform: end of hereditary peers

Reform is expected to come in two stages, the first removing the voting and speaking rights of hereditary peers. This would immediately reduce the built-in Conservative majority. Its impact on higher educationt is less clear.

Hereditary peers have played a relatively limited part in higher education debates.

Current or former academics who are hereditary peers include the Liberal Democrats Earl Russell and Lord Kirkwood and Viscount Runciman, who, though the grandson of a Liberal cabinet minister, sits as a cross-bencher. Conservative hereditary peers include Lord Limerick, outgoing chair of the Committee of University Chairmen and chair of council of Guildhall University and Lord Windlesham, president of Brasenose College, Oxford.

Earl Russell, professor of history at King's College, London, has been a main contributor to higher education debates since succeeding as fifth earl in 1987. He argues that hereditary peers still have a useful role, telling The THES last year: "When the Lords and Commons disagree, more often than not the Lords are closer to public opinion. The hereditary element provides an input from people like myself who would be unlikely to win preferment under any system of political patronage."

If hereditary peers were abolished, it is unlikely that there would be anything to prevent the Liberal Democrats using one of their quota of life peerages to return Earl Russell to the House.

Labour peer Lord Plant, master of St Catherine's College, Oxford, says:

"I'm sure they would - they'd be daft not to. The House of Lords without Conrad Russell would be a much poorer place."

But while hereditary peers make few direct interventions in higher education debates, their votes might matter. Lord Davies, Labour's higher education spokesman in the Commons before the last election, says: "Every government defeat since the last election has relied on the votes of hereditary peers."

Second stage of reform: nominated or elected peers

Much more imponderable is the second stage of reform. Lord Irvine, who chairs the Cabinet committee on Lords reform, has indicated that the government is unlikely to do much to change the power of the upper house to revise or delay legislation.

Interviewed in the New Statesman this month he was less clear on the makeup of a reformed house. The decision to be made is whether it should be entirely elected or a mix of elected and nominated peers.

A wholly elected house is likely to be unwelcome to the Commons, scenting a threat to its control of the political system.

Further, as Lord Plant says: "If you had an entirely elected house, people will be elected on the basis of party affiliation." The independent stance of cross-benchers would be lost. Elected members would mirror the education interests of those in the Commons, which tend towards schools rather than universities.

Lord Plant says that peers who accept party labels do not defy the whip casually: "There is a fair amount of peer-group pressure. You don't want to become known as a maverick or a loner."

But reaction to his vote against the government on the Competition Bill took the form of a letter from the chief whip "more in sorrow than in anger".

Second stage of reform: the life peers

Life peers who remain under a new system are key to higher education's influence in the Lords.

"Second only to the landed interest and, in a more specialised sense, the law," says Lord Davies.

The brief profiles in Vacher's Parliamentary Companion reveal about 100 peers with an active interest in higher education. They are particularly prominent on the Labour benches, which, with the presence of Lords Currie, Donoghue, Desai, Peston, Wedderburn of Charlton, Winston and Baroness Blackstone.

But there is also a big Conservative group including the acerbic maverick Lord Beloff, Cambridge archaeologist Lord Renfrew, Lord Butterworth Baronesses Park, Perry, a former South Bank vice-chancellor, Carnegy of Lour, for years one of the most influential members of the council of the Open University, and Lord Young.

Cross-benchers also have their share of supporters, with Lords Annan, Flowers and Quirk. In a house where even key divisions may attract fewer than 300 voters, a group of this size, particularly if prepared to break party lines to defend a particular interest, can have immense clout.

Lord Plant suggests that this can be a mixed blessing: "The group is very heavily Oxbridge. They are mostly my age and above. So how in touch they are with some of the changes that probably have to be made in the sector, for instance in order to produce people with more employable skills, is perhaps open to question."

Lord Davies makes the Oxbridge point with greater force: "The debate on Oxbridge fees was a classic example of the defence of conspicuous vested interests.

"There was a respectable case for Oxbridge to answer, and instead almost everyone in the debate identified themselves unreservedly with the universities. We have a large higher education budget covering a wide range of institutions, but spent eight hours discussing two institutions and Pounds 37 million."

The odds are that the Lords higher education lobby has time. Mr Lamport says: "It is unlikely that the government will take Lords reform further than the first stage and the removal of the hereditary peers in this Parliament. I have a strong suspicion that stage two may never be reached."

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