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Peers waffle to sabotage voting reform legislation

By Nigel Morris and Oliver Wright

Unelected peers in the House of Lords are trying to sabotage legislation for May's referendum on voting reform by holding it up with enormously long speeches, straying on to such diverse subjects as cannibalism, the merits of Facebook, Scottish football rivalries and prime numbers.

A succession of senior Labour figures – including the former leader Lord Kinnock and Lord Falconer, the former lord chancellor – joined a marathon all-night sitting before taking their first break at 12.50pm yesterday. The debate is continuing today.

Hundreds of peers slept in the Lords on Monday night – many on camp beds hired for the occasion – as the debate, the longest Lords sitting since 2005, dragged on into the morning. Separate dormitories were provided for Lords and Ladies. A sick bay has been set up to dispense aspirin to anyone feeling unwell.

The Government Whips' Office even publishing a news sheet called The Overnighter, detailing the provisions and entertainment available. It explained: "There will be some provision made for camp beds. Do please make use of these facilities as our stamina is going to be tested and we all need plenty of rest."

A series of talks and activities were laid on to keep the peers entertained (and in some cases awake) while they were not in the chamber. Lord Coe was scheduled to speak on the Olympics at 10.30pm on Monday, followed by the newly ennobled Lord Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, who was to give a lecture entitled: "In conversation: a life on stage and screen" between midnight and 1am.

The document continued: "Bored? We have board games available. Are you a bridge player? Forgotten your own decks? Borrow what you fancy."

The Bishops' Bar was opened all night "with normal range plus toasted sandwiches". Complimentary wine, soft drinks and nibbles were laid on between 10pm and 2am.

Labour critics of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which needs to be in place by next month in time for the planned referendum on 5 May, are focusing on the section that cuts the number of MPs from 650 to 600. They argue that the measure – which they believe will redraw constituency boundaries in the Tories' favour – is being rushed into law without proper scrutiny.

Last night, peers on both sides of the Lords suggested a compromise deal might be close to prevent another gruelling session today. But this was denied by both the Coalition and the Labour leadership.

Their delaying tactics infuriated Coalition ministers, who berated Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, for allowing unelected members of the Lords to try to deny the public a referendum on changing the voting system. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, said: "Ed Miliband has been hawking himself round the TV studios at the weekend telling anyone who will listen that he wants to woo Liberal Democrats as part of a new politics.

"It is an interesting way of wooing Lib Dems to let Labour dinosaurs in the House of Lords attempt to stop people from having their say on how they elect who represents them."

Baroness Warsi, the Tory party chairman, denounced the peers as "cynical vote-blockers", adding: "These time-wasting tactics by former Labour MPs are preventing the public from having a say on a policy Ed Miliband claims he supports."

One Tory peer, who grabbed three hours' sleep on cushions on the floor, said: "We're talking about a Bill that uniquely affects the composition of the House of Commons and has been passed by the Commons. A group of retired or rejected MPs are trying to use the Lords to obstruct the will of the Commons."

But Mr Miliband hit back, saying: "I support a referendum on voting reform; I believe it is part of the change in politics that we need. But I do not support attempts by this Tory-led Government to combine this with a cynical plan for the gerrymandering of every constituency in this country."

Monday night's debate was the longest Lords sitting since 2005, when peers sat from 11am until 7.31pm the following night, debating amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. Hundreds of peers slept in the Lords – many on specially hired camp beds – as the debate dragged on.

Speaking in the Chamber yesterday morning, the Tories' Lord Strathclyde told peers they were looking "remarkably sprightly". He quipped: "I am almost tempted to do it all over again." He commended the Lords staff for their help with the all-night sitting, including camp beds for "the lucky few" and "a most delicious breakfast" in the early hours.

Q&A: Several lords a-sleeping...

Why have the Lords been staying up all night?

To some, the idea of keeping dozens of venerable peers up all night would be considered a form of abuse of the elderly. But in the antiquated world of Parliament, it's called democracy. Or, at the very least, tactics.

In normal circumstances, the 'Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010-11' would make its way through the Commons and Lords without too much fuss. Labour does not have a majority in either House to block the Bill, which legislates for May's planned referendum on voting reform, and reduces MPs' numbers by 50 to 600.

But the Government does not have time on its side. In order to hold a referendum on the same day as the local elections on 5 May, it needs to have the legislation on the statute book by 16 February to give the Electoral Commission time to prepare.

And that has given Labour its chance. Claiming they object to using the same Bill for the referendum and reducing the number of MPs, Labour peers have decided to try and talk it out.

So how have the peers gone about blocking the reforms?

They have tabled 126 "bundles" of amendments to the Bill, which is in committee stage. Normally, one amendment would take roughly half an hour. In Monday's marathon debate, they got through only three in 22 hours.

Who will win this battle of wills?

The Government whips say they will simply force peers to keep on debating the Bill through the night(s) ahead until they get through all of the amendments. Both sides are looking to see who blinks first.

But there is one other factor at play: under a piece of arcane parliamentary procedure, if the peers carry on debating the Bill (without moving on to the next day's business), it is considered the same 'day' and they cannot then claim the next day's attendance allowance – which is worth nearly £200.

And, strangely, that brought a compromise yesterday. The Lords agreed at lunchtime to suspend the debate and start on 'today's' business. So there is something that politicians can agree on, then. But they will go back to trying to 'talk out' the referendum Bill tomorrow – probably for another all-night sitting.

Oliver Wright, Whitehall Editor

Sausage rolls to Mrs Whibley... Selected Lordly digressions

6pm: Lord Martin of Springburn

"I had a great affection for Donald Dewar. Those who knew him talk of his generosity. On the day he told us that we were going to lose 12 seats in Scotland there was a buffet of two sausage rolls and three sandwiches."

9:45pm: Baroness Hayter

“How will people relate to their elected Members? Will it be by phone and email? Will it be in person, or through groups? I am not on Facebook, but people increasingly want their views to be heard through groups and texting along with others of a similar position?”

1.35am: Baroness Billingham

"On a Friday night, if you asked anyone in Corby, 'What are you doing at the weekend?', they would say, 'We are going home.'... Coaches were lined up in the high street for the supporters – some to watch Celtic and some to watch Rangers."

1.45am: Lord Harris of Haringey

"What were the reasons for choosing 600 [seats] as opposed to 650, 630, 575 or 585? I was tempted to say that there was some sort of arcane numerology ... 650 is the product of three prime numbers: two, five squared and 13."

2am: Baroness Mallalieu

"My father was a good constituency MP because he went once a month to his seat in Huddersfield. He dealt with constituency problems one afternoon a week, when his secretary, Mrs Whibley, used to come to the house and sit down and deal with his correspondence..."

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