It was the author Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) who invented the fictitious character Plantagenet Palliser who became Duke of Omnium and, even though he had to sit in the House of Lords, Prime Minister of a coalition government. Palliser sought in vain to decimalise the currency but this reform eluded him. It is now a century ago since the Parliament Act 1911 limited the powers of the House of Lords and stated in the Preamble:
"Whereas it is expedient that provision should be made for regulating the relations between the two Houses of Parliament: And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation: ...."
A century later, the kind of reform indicated in 1911 has proved to be extremely elusive though, like Palliser, it has not necessarily been for the want of trying. There was the Bryce Conference of 1917-18; the Parliament Act 1949 further limited the Lords' power, life peerages came with the Life Peerage Act 1958 (and enlivened the Lords), the Peerage Act 1963 permitted disclaimer of peerages; and the House of Lords Act 1999 removed some 654 out of 746 hereditary peers. Then came the Wakeham report of 2000 followed by a Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform report of 2002 and various White Papers - notably that of 2007 - and now the coalition government's proposals. Proposals for reform up to year 2000 are helpfully summarised here.
Rodney Brazier - (Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Manchester) - in his book "Constitutional Reform - Reshaping the British Political System" (OUP 3rd Ed) refers to the "Second-Chamber Paradox" (chapter 5). It is in this book that the analogy with Plantagenet Palliser appears. Brazier argues that, on the one hand, our Parliament is enhanced by the presence of some people from outside the world of politics who bring their individual experience and expertise to bear. Further, the House tends to look at legislation with "something approaching an impartial rigour" and the House is therefore a counterweight to the elective dictatorship. On the other hand, a House without elected members is "anomalous and unrepresentative."
The coalition has presented a Draft Bill which will undergo pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses. The name "House of Lords" is retained for the time being - thus avoiding getting bogged down in argument over the name. The key proposals are:
- A House of 300 full time members plus some "Lords Spiritual" and "Ministerial Members" - transition to be achieved in stages
- The 300 will be 80% elected (but 100% not ruled out) by "Single Transferable Vote" (STV) - (though an "Open List" appears not to be ruled out at this stage) - the proposed STV is described in the White Paper
- The 300 will include 20% appointed - House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) - persons will be nominated by HOLAC to the PM who will make a recommendation to The Queen - (thus, there will be executive influence over who is appointed) - appointed members will bring a non-party-political perspective - Commission to be overseen by a Joint Committee
- Elected or appointed members to have 15 year term - not renewable and with restrictions on former members of HL standing for election to Commons
- Elections for multi-member "Electoral Districts" to be held at the same time as General elections
- To fill vacancies, a system of "substitute members" is proposed
- The link between the Peerage and the HL will be abolished - peers will be able to stand for election to either House of Parliament - the peerage will continue to exist as an honour
- Transition - the White Paper offers three Options for achieving a transition - the government's prefers Option 1 which would transition from the old HL to the new over 3 elections - i.e. around a 10 year period
- During transition, some existing members would remain but their numbers would reduce as numbers of elected / appointed members increase
- The number of Church of England Bishops would eventually reduce to 12 - (this retains a link between the C of E as the "established Church" and Parliament)
- Parliament would comprise The Queen, the reformed HL and the Commons
- Ceremonial functions - e.g. State Opening - will continue - the historic roles of the Earl Marshal and the Lord Chamberlain will remain but they will not be members of the HL
- There is much detail in the White Paper regarding salaries, allowances, pensions, tax, misconduct, resignation, recall by the electorate (this to be considered but government not decided as yet), disqualification and political donations and election spending.
STV is the government's preference for elections to the reformed HL and the White Paper contains detail on how this would operate. The actual multi-member areas for elections will be determined at first by an independent committee of experts but the Electoral Commission will be required to review the areas after every third election - thus there could be 20 years between changes. The Saint-Laguë formula will be used in the reviews.
Explanatory Notes are included along with the White Paper and the draft Bill.
Will these proposals succeed?
For possible obstacles to reform see - Eight Obstacles on the road to Lords reform. Also see - BBC 17th May. and The Guardian 18th May.
Yet again, we are witnessing politicians all too eager to bring about constitutional reform which is probably more based on immediate political interests, such as perpetuating the coalition, rather than being based on what is best for the nation. The House of Lords has carried out its task as a "revising Chamber" extremely effectively and has opposed government plans on many occasions. This function is of vital importance and must not be neutered or swept away.
Even after a wait of 100 years reform will, like the ideas of Plantagenet Palliser, probably prove to be as elusive as ever.