Monday, 17 May 2010
House of Lords - Reform
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