Hat tip to the Lloyd Rees Live blog which highlights a speech, in the House of Lords, by Baroness Boothroyd - a former Speaker of the House of Commons. She is scathing about the coalition plans to reform the House of Lords which Law and Lawyers looked at on 20th May when the House of Lords Reform Bill first emerged. Her speech was excellent and may be viewed at Democracy Live.
experience has an institution at the heart of the British constitution been
marked down for destruction on such spurious grounds. Never in all my years in public life has the bicameral role of our Parliament been so wantonly put at risk by such disregard of the nation’s best interests.
democracy too radical, maybe we should preserve this 20 per cent if they are independently appointed." (4) then there is the charge that a democratic Lords would mean a more political Lords. "As though it wasn't political already." "There are 201 former MPs who have humped their politics the short distance from the green benches in the Commons to the red ones in the Lords." "We are all of us political placemen or women, put there by a system of patronage, in the hands of those in power. I thought that went out with the Stuart kings!"
Asdown goes on to point out that the Lords should have two functions. First, to be a revising chamber and he says it does this well. Secondly, to act as part of the system of checks and balances, to stand up to an overmighty executive, backed by an overwhelming majority in the Commons, when it tries to do foolish things (e.g. launching us into an "illegal" war). The Lords does not perform this function well. "We may have a bicameral system when it comes to the small thing of amending legislation. But when it comes to the big thing - acting as a check on the executive - ours is no more than a monocameral system with a bungalow annexe."
Comment: In a letter to The Times (29th June), Dr Meg Russell - Reader in British and Comparative Politics, University College London - challenged Mr Ashdown's facts. Russell argues that there 38 second chambers which are wholly elected. Many elected second chambers are in Presidential systems (e.g. USA) where there is no concept of "primacy" for the lower House. Some second chambers have limited constitutional powers - e.g. in Japan the lower house can overrule the upper house by a two-thirds majority. Furthermore, it was wrong to suggest that the first thing a new government does is to appoint enough new peers to create a majority of itself in the Lords.
In the period 1997 to 2006, the political balance in the Lords was altered from an in-built Conservative majority to a situation in which Labour became the largest party. This was achieved by not only appointments but also by exclusion of most of the hereditary peers under the House of Lords Act 1999. In the time from the 2010 general election to April 2011, some 117 new peers have been created prompting a report from, University College London, that the House is Full - (pdf). The Guardian 20th April 2011.