Monday 17 May 2010

House of Lords - Reform

An unelected House of Parliament stands in contradiction to the democratic idea of a parliament elected by the people.  Whilst most modern politicians appear to accept that position, reform of the House of Lords is proving to be a difficult issue.

The agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats envisages setting up a committee to look at reforming the House of Lords into a "wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation".  No alternative name for the reformed chamber has been suggested (e.g. Senate).  The committee will report by December 2010.  It is interesting that the agreement referred to "single long terms of office" and a "grandfathering system for current peers".  The very terms of the agreement appear to have already limited the terms of reference of the committee.

We await details of what is a "long term of office" though it is believed that a term as long as 12 years may be on the cards.  Would it not be preferable to limit the length of a term of office to 5 years but permit the person to be re-elected a maximum number of times (e.g. once or twice)?

It appears that the coalition government is about to create 100 new Conservative/Liberal Democrat peers - The Times 17th May - so that the House of Lords membership more accurately reflects the results of the recent general election.  Of course, the aim of creating so many new peers is to remove the majority in the Lords which Labour has enjoyed since 2005.  In addition, further peers will be appointed as a result of the Dissolution Honours and obviously many of those will take the Labour whip.

It would seem that all of these appointees would enjoy the "grandfather rights" referred to in the coalition agreement and it would therefore take many years before they disappear from a supposedly reformed upper house.

Little of this seems very satisfactory.  To avoid a reformed Lords becoming unwieldy, it would necessarily require a sensible maximum number of members.  The retention of large numbers of appointed peers would limit the number of persons who could be elected and would slow down the pace of reform.  Their retention would also result in two classes of members - those with peerages and those without (assuming that elected members would not receive peerages).

Would it be preferable to grasp the nettle, make a fresh start and move to a fully elected second chamber at the earliest date possible?   To achieve that would entail the appointed peers being removed in the way that the majority of the hereditary peers were removed by the House of Lords Act 1999.

Addendum 18th May:   The Guardian comments that some 170 new "Coalition" peers would be needed.  Between them, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats already have a significant political majority in the Lords (260 to Labour's 211 - with crossbenchers, bishops and a few others making up the rest of the House).  The Times also points out that well in excess of 100 peers would be required if the Lords is to mirror the result of the last election.  They ask: what if the next election produces a dramatically different result?  Would the new government then appoint further peers to achieve a further rebalancing?

The possible consquences of this make the case for reform urgent and unarguable.  A democratic upper chamber will never be achieved if things continue in this vein.

Addendum 24th May:  The Times 20th May published a suggestion of Professor Dawn Oliver that the House of Lords be replaced by a new "Commission for Executive Scrutiny".  I would acknowledge that this is a suggestion from an eminent source.  The proposed Commission would not be part of parliament but would examine bills and propose amendments and might even have power to impose delay.  There are enormous advantages to having a BICAMERAL Parliament since one House acts as a check on the other.  A UNICAMERAL Parliament could, for example, extend its own lifetime and, with a large enough government majority, might engage in all sorts of "excesses".  For my part, I would not wish to see an Executive Scrutiny Commission.  A mostly elected and reformed upper house - (Senate) - is surely preferable and would be a true part of our national parliament


  1. Ed (not Bystander)17 May 2010 at 13:15

    Maybe, just maybe, the new administration will make changes slowly and in a measured way, not sweepingly as laid out on the back of a fag packet. And you DON'T like this?

  2. Ed - thanks for the comment. I am far from advocating a "fag packet" approach to this. I prefer an approach which brings reform so that we have an elected second chamber within a sensible timescale - which may have to be as much as 10 years but hopefully no more.

    Reform of the House of Lords has been on/off the political agenda for almost 100 years now. The Parliament Act 1911 indicated the intention to bring about a second chamber constituted "on a popular instead of hereditary basis". Since then we have seen a number of reforms e.g. Parliament Act 1949; Life Peerage Act 1958; Peerage Act 1963 and the House of Lords Act 1999. All important changes but it has been a piecemeal approach.

    Considerable work was done to look at reform during the last parliament - see Report The proposed committee will have the benefit of this and other work.

    It is time now (after 100 years) that the real reform began. However, the proposed massive increase in peers (with grandfather rights) threatens the process.

    The time to make the needed reforms is during this parliament. There may not be another opportunity for many many years.

  3. Am happy to back reform of H of L but would like to see some way of keeping some of the cross-benchers and/or those of any party who have expertise - over and over again the real good sense in the field of criminal justicer comes from people like Lord Ramsbottom and Baroness Stern - what we need to be rid of are the party hacks. years - just follow their speeches

  4. Yes, the crossbenchers do bring a degree of non-party and often high-quality viewpoint to debate. Whether they will survive reform is an interesting question and may be why the coalition agreement refers to "wholly or mainly elected".

    In February 2003, the Commons almost voted for 80% elected. By 2005, they wanted 70% elected by STV. In March 2007, the vote was 305 to 267 in favour of 80% elected but was 337 to 224 favouring wholly elected. However, in March 2007, the Lords favoured wholly appointed. In July 2008, Jack Straw proposed 80-100% elected; one-third per general election.

    The views of crossbenchers may be seen here.

    It might well be a good idea to involve some Labour politicians in the proposed committee since this might lead to greater acceptance of the eventual proposal and demonstrate to the Lords the will of the Commons.

    I think the names of the houses will need to change. Lords and Commons reflects a time which has passed. Senate and Representatives would be acceptable (as in Australia). New Zealand just has Representatives. Canada has Commons and Senate.

  5. I think a single long tenure is a good idea, to promote independence from parties, but I don't think 12 years is long enough. I would be happy to see people aged 45 to 60 appointed or elected for a 25 year tenure. That sort of long collective memory is needed.

    I would suggest that a fifth of the house should be elected every four or five years, or a similar rule. In this way the system could be phased in over a similarly long period.

    I don't think any form of national party list system such as STV or AV+ is suitable - they may as well simply appoint peers, since the party lists will determine most of the seats. (STV is not in theory a party-list system, but in practice it operates like one.)

    My favoured method would be geographically/regionally based, multi-member constituency approval votes. I.e. where each elector has as many votes as there are open seats, but can vote for each candidate only once.

    There would be plenty of scope for non-partisan individuals with particular expertise or fame to be elected on an individual basis.

    I would continue to call the place The House of Lords, granting each elected Lord or Lady a life peerage.

    I would abolish hereditary peerages, either converting them all to life peerages, or with a rule that anyone born after the act comes into force cannot inherit a peerage.

    I.e. existing peerages would not give the right to sit in the house, and the only way to get one in future would be election.

    What I *expect* however is some sort of partisan stitch-up.

  6. Ben - I hope that your "throw away line" does not prove to be accurate.

    Even the responses to this post demonstrate that this is not going to be an easy topic but, as I said above, reform has been on the agenda for virtually 100 years. It is time to get it sorted out and there may never be a better opportunity than in this parliament.

    There is force in your argument that "collective memory" is needed but I would not agree that very long terms (25 years) would be right. The reformed House would have to have a maximum membership and such long terms would operate to prevent many able persons being elected.

    I suspect that the reformed House will not end up being totally elected but perhaps the appointed element should have to be "cross benchers" - [OnlookerJP made a good point - above].

    I would disagree about continuing any link between peerages and a reformed House. A simple rule that a peerage would not, of itself, entitle the person to be a member is what is needed. Peers could stand for election or, if there is a non-elected element, they could be appointed.

    The Crown could continue to create peers - (e.g. as recognition of specially distingished service etc) but no rights of membership of parliament would attach.

    The other feature of the Coalition's announcement referred to "grandfather rights" for existing peers. For reasons given above, I think that stands in the way of any serious reform.

  7. My theory has always been the the British constitutional workings, while often philosophically questionable, tend to work in practice so well that tinkering with them should be done with care and - in general - by making the least change possible.

    I also dislike the idea of having two elected chambers: I just don't see the point. Once you give the Lords the sheen of legitimacy by electing them, they will attempt to assert power, diminishing the primacy of the Commons.

    So my proposal is that the workings and legal structure of the Lords be left completely alone. What I would change is the appointments process. Government would be able to nominate a small number of peers, say 10-15 annually, perhaps also allowing an allotment to the other parties. However, the bulk of new peers would be taken by randomly selecting from the voter's roll. Scary as this might sound, it worked extremely well in Canada, where both Ontario and British Columbia created a forum to evaluate and change their voting systems.

  8. As somebody who has no connexion with Parliament either the Lords or Commons, aside from being a fairly regular Liberal voter. I must say that I am wholly against turning the Lords into an elected second chamber.

    The great thing about our current system is that the Lords contains an array of amazingly talented experts in their fields (alas few in law any more). It does have it's ex-politicians and those appointed merely to be politicians in the Lords, but maybe it should be reformed to prevent them from sitting.

    On the occasions where the commons brings very stupid legislation, you can generally rely on the Lords to prevent it becoming law for a bit. Yes, the commons can pass an Act without the consent of the Lords if they so chose - which is itself an excellent check and balance on the power of the unelected Chamber - but it forces the Government to wait and thus reflect on what it is trying to do. This can make for better laws in the long run.

    An elected second Chamber will either mean that elections for both houses are held at the same time, so a majority for one party in both houses could lead to a virtual dictatorship - imagine Bliar if he had that massive 1997 majority control of both the COmmons and Lords!

    Or, they will be elected separately, so say Conservatives win in 2015 then two years later Labour win in the Lord in 2017 we end up with a hung Parliament effectively where it is very hard for either Chamber to legislate.

    I've always liked the saying, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and I think that sums up my feelings about reform of the Lords.