A two-week standoff in the House of Lords between Labour and the coalition over a constitutional reform bill was partially resolved today when ministers agreed to a key opposition demand on shrinking the House of Commons.
Labour agreed to abandon a filibustering campaign, which had forced peers to sleep on camp beds in committee rooms during overnight sessions, after the government announced that it would allow limited public inquiries when parliamentary constituencies are redrawn.
Ministers climbed down after it became clear that the government could not deliver on a threat made at the weekend to break convention in the House of Lords by bringing 15 days of debate to an end through a “guillotine” motion.
David Cameron, who had been spoiling for a fight with Labour, was advised that such a motion would be defeated after Baroness D’Souza, leader of the non-party crossbench peers, had said that peers “might as well go home and cease to exist” if a guillotine was imposed. D’Souza tabled a compromise amendment today which prompted Labour to say that it would allow the bill to complete its committee stage by Wednesday evening.
But Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the former lord chancellor, said Labour could not guarantee that the bill would reach its third and final reading stage in the House of Lords by a deadline of Monday 14 February because the party was still demanding more concessions. “This is not the end of the cold war, it is more like detente,” he joked tonight.
The parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill, which is one of the most important elements of the coalition’s constitutional reform programme, contains key elements for the Lib Dems and the Tories. It is designed to pave the way for a referendum on an alternative vote, due to be held in May, which was the main Lib Dem win in the coalition negotiations last year. It is also designed to deliver a key Tory manifesto pledge by reducing the House of Commons from 650 to 600 MPs by equalising the size of parliamentary constituencies to around 76,000 voters.
The government had been prepared to take the unprecedented step of imposing a guillotine motion in the House of Lords because the legislation needs to reach the statute book by 16 February to allow a referendum on AV to be held by May. The Boundary Commission also needs early notice to redraw parliamentary boundaries to take account of a smaller House of Commons.
The government abandoned its attempt to curtail the debate after all sides accepted the amendment from the crossbench peers. This will allow a public inquiry to be held on the redrawing of a parliamentary constituency if the Boundary Commission declares that one is necessary.
But Labour is still threatening to block the bill during its next stages unless the government gives ground in two further areas by agreeing to:
• Vary the size of the new parliamentary constituencies by 10% above or below the electoral quota size of around 76,000 voters. This would mean that constituencies could vary in size from 83,600 voters to 68,400 voters. Under the government’s plans, constituencies can only be varied in size by 5% either way of the 76,000 quota. This means that a constituency should contain no more than 79,800 voters and no less than 72,200 voters.
• Establish a commission to make an assessment after the passage of the bill as to whether 600 is the right size for the House of Commons.
Falconer, who described the possibility of a guillotine as “an abomination”, told peers that Labour needed the extra concessions to guarantee the bill’s progress.
“Focusing only on the key issues on report, and employing the economy and focus your lordships will expect at report and later at third reading, the further timetable depends on further agreement on substantive issues between the parties. The crossbenches have played a critical part in getting us to the good point we are on the substantive issues. We commit ourselves to work hard now to try to reach the necessary further agreement.”
Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader of the house, told peers: “The government will be bringing forward a package of concessions at report stage of the bill and I’m sure that the whole house will welcome that. We are in the welcome position of having an agreement to complete committee stage by the end of Wednesday this week.
“But equally I am sure that I have no need to remind the house that we need to return this bill to the Commons by the end of Monday 14 February – this is two weeks today – if the referendum is to be held on May 5. From the soundings I have taken I feel confident the majority of members in all parts of the house share this aim.”
The crossbench peers withdrew their amendment after the government accepted its premise.
D’Souza told peers: “It is perhaps unusual for a crossbencher to intervene at this late stage of a bill, particularly in a bill which has become so politicised. Crossbenchers are, in fact, independent and not politically aligned.
“However, something of an impasse had been reached towards the end of last week and I was encouraged by one or two people to see if there was any way in which we might play a useful role. I do so with great humility. The other thing that perhaps has moved me, certainly, and a number of other crossbenchers was the shadow or the threat of anything approaching a ‘closure motion’ in this house.”
The agreement showed weaknesses on both the coalition and Labour sides. The coalition backed down after it became clear that opposition among its own peers and the crossbenchers meant that the guillotine motion would not pass. But Labour had to give ground and reach a deal because crossbenchers were losing patience with its aggressive tactics.