January 22, 2012 11:43 pm

Lords threatens coalition reforms

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The row about the welfare reform bill is a symptom of a much larger problem the government faces in the Lords.

Several important bills are snarled up in the upper chamber and the delays are not only sapping any meaningful business in the Commons – they also threaten to kill the government’s health and welfare reforms. If these are not voted through in time for the Queen’s Speech, they could fail entirely.

The Queen’s Speech has been delayed from March until an expected date in May, which Labour figures say is because ministers need more time to get their programme through.

The health bill is already in stasis after peers threatened to vote against the government on whether the health secretary should have ultimate responsibility for providing the National Health Service. Lord Howe, the government health minister in the Lords, is trying to thrash out an agreement with Lady Williams and other rebellious Liberal Democrats and crossbenchers. The legal aid bill also threatens to be controversial in the coming weeks.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional scholar, said: “It is certainly a possibility that these bills will not pass in time for the Queen’s Speech. The government has to worry about the Lords at the moment much more than the Commons.”

Liberal Democrat rebels, many of whom come from a centre-left tradition, have been blamed for opposing the government but in truth only a handful in the party has rebelled on each occasion.

Ministers are having more problems winning over crossbenchers. These independent peers usually split evenly between the government and opposition but have recently voted with Labour.

That is partly because the government is trying to do unpopular things to reduce the deficit and because it is unable to loosen the purse strings to accommodate peers’ amendments.

Lord Best, a crossbencher who organised much of the opposition to the government on the welfare bill, said: “There is serious money involved here. The difficulty for the government is it is trying to save so much money, it has to dig in deeper.”

A more prosaic reason for the government’s problems is how effective opposition lobbying has been both inside and outside the Lords.

On the inside, crossbenchers have found themselves targeted by a Labour whipping operation run with military precision by Lord Bassam, the Labour chief whip, who is often able to calculate exactly how many votes he can win on the day, even despite the notoriously unpredictable nature of the Lords.

Peers have also been courted with unusual dedication by outside campaign groups, such as 38 Degrees, which opposes the health bill. These groups realise that the coalition in the Commons shows little sign of cracking and so have shifted their attention to the upper chamber, where they bombard peers with emails and calls in the lead-up to an important vote.

Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative leader in the Lords, said he was not surprised by government defeats in the upper chamber. He said: “It would be a very odd session if the government was to win every division.” The peer added: “I have every confidence the government’s programme will be delivered.”

But even if they succeed, the government is likely to face a much bigger battle in the second half of the parliament – reform of the House of Lords.

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