It seems like a fairly straightforward principle: that members of the House of Lords who propose changes to government bills should then vote for their own proposals.
But in a sign of how difficult they are finding it in a coalition government, especially in the face of forceful opposition from Labour, Liberal Democrat peers have ended up voting against their own amendments five times during this parliament.
Lord Lester, who proposed to moderate the bill allowing ministers to disband a series of quangos, said he was “left looking like a complete idiot” when he traipsed through the lobby against his own proposals. This came after he told peers during the debate: “[My changes] seek to secure democratic accountability to parliament and the citizen, as well as to the courts in accordance with the rule of law.”
The Lib Dem lord was told by his party’s chief whip that trying to push through his changes would harm the government, and that he should withdraw them to let ministers consider amending the bill themselves. But when he tried to withdraw the amendment, Labour peers simply decided to propose it themselves, leaving him with little option but to vote against it.
“I was left standing on my head,” the peer said. “This really comes about because we are in coalition and therefore we have a different set of loyalties operating. I was acting under the constraints of my chief whip.”
But he added: “It was something I will never do again.”
Nick Clegg admitted in a recent interview with The House magazine: “I am asking, day in, day out, Liberal Democrat peers to vote on things that they wouldn’t do in a month of Sundays if it was a Liberal Democrat government.” But few peers expected being in a coalition government also meant voting against amendments they wrote themselves.
Labour insists that whatever the complex politics behind the tactic of a peer voting against his or her own amendment, the public would see it as hypocrisy.
Baroness Royall, Labour’s leader in the Lords, said: “There are plenty of good people on the Lib Dem benches who table amendments clearly rooted in their values.
“But it will be hard for people in the outside world, in the campaign groups and charities, to understand why some Lib Dems have taken to voting against matters that they previously pursued.”
Last October, Baroness Sharp proposed amending the education bill to make sure careers guidance counsellors met minimum qualification standards. She tried to withdraw the proposals after being told by Michael Gove, the education secretary, and Nick Gibb, the schools minister, that the government would go some way to meeting her demands. But she too was left voting against the amendment after Labour proposed it instead.
Baroness Sharp said: “Because we are in a coalition we get more concessions than if we weren’t, so I was happy to withdraw the amendment. Labour had a very similar proposal but decided to propose mine in order deliberately to embarrass us.”
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