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It's the Law: Why a referendum on Lords reform is constitutionally sound and desirable

    It is 100 and-a-bit years after Lloyd George and Asquith curtailed the powers of the House of Lords. Back then the powers of the peers were reduced to a delaying power. Now - after several attempts by the previous government - the Coalition is trying to reform the Lords by bringing in elected members - something that Lloyd George et al. sought to do before they were interrupted by the First World War.

    But there are problems with the reform as well as there are arguments for change.

    Back in 1910, A.V. Dicey, arguably the greatest constitutional lawyer ever, wrote an article about 'The Destruction of All Parliamentary Safe Guards', in which he advocated that a referendum be held before massive constitutional change was undertaken.

    Now, the views of a long dead Oxford don may not convince us today, but it is interesting that the idea that a referendum should be held before reform of the House of Lords is still recognised.

    In his book British Politics a Very Short Introduction, Tony Wright - formerly a prominent and much respected Labour MP - commented that it had become a convention of the Constitution that referendums were held before major constitutional changes, such as Lords reform.

    But perhaps more importantly, the High Court in Thoburn v Sunderland City Council, held a decade ago that there are issues that are so important that they should not be changed by a simple parliamentary majority. The courts explicitly mentioned reform of the Lords as an example. So whether one likes it or not there are strong constitutional and even legal grounds for arguing that a referendum is held before Nick Clegg's proposed reform of the Lords becomes law.

    Of course, this would make life more difficult for those who want reform. The reformers will have to prove to the voters that there is a case for reforming the Lords. Whether they fear this challenge is an open question, but as a matter of principle - and as a matter of law - they should let the people decide the fate and future of the unelected peers.

     

    Matt Qvortrup is an expert on constitution and referendum. He teaches British politics and Constitution at UCL. He has previously been a visiting Professor at University of Sydney and a fellow at the London School of Economics.

     

    Matt Qvortrup teaches British politics and Constitution at UCL. He has previously been a visiting Professor at University of Sydney and a fellow at the London School of Economics.

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