Another dance round the mulberry bush – Lords reform returns

Yesterday’s draft bill on reforming the House of Lords (available here) is accompanied by the sort of crisp explication that makes both normal white papers and explanatory notes to bills look over-written.  What’s proposed is a 300 member chamber, to consist ultimately of 240 elected members, 60 appointed ones and 12 bishops of the Church of England. (Yes, I know that adds up to a chamber of 312, but that’s what the white paper explaining the bill says.  The closest thing there is to an answer is that the bishops are to be ex-officio members.)  The 300 will be selected for non-renewable 15 year terms, with one-third chosen every five years, and will be expected to be full-time politicians.  The 60 appointees would be chosen by the House of Lords Appointment Commission, on a non-party basis, and intended to act as cross-benchers – pretty much what the position is meant to be at present.   The 240 elected members would be chosen by the single transferable vote, in multi-member constituencies which would be somewhere in size between counties and the standard regions used for European Parliament elections.  There would be a transitional period while this new system was introduced, during which the size of the House would be reduced by one-third every five years.  But all this is up for revision following a consultation exercise, and the government highlights that the electoral system to be used and the proportion to be elected are particularly open to change.

Whether any of this happens is doubtful at best.  Politicians have already weighed in to attack the proposals (see the Guardian here and the Daily Telegraph here).  My colleagues at the Constitution Unit at UCL have issued a press release indicating some major problems with it, here.  I’ve a short piece about it in today’s Scotsman, available here.  The obstacles to building a coalition for any particular change is always huge, as it brings together those who resist any change at all (to be found in both Conservative and Labour parties) with those who object to a particular provision.  I’m afraid I lost count of how many attempts there were under Labour to reform the House, but there were at least four.

One of the biggest problems with the latest proposal is the belief that a reformed House would play the same role as it does at present, and that nothing need to be done about its functions or powers.   There have been two major constraints on the actions of the House of Lords in recent years (disregarding its limited powers over money bills); self-restraint, and the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949.  In reality, the Parliament Acts are of less use than one might think – they allow the Commons to pass legislation and submit it for Royal assent, without approval  by the Lords, if sufficient time passes.   But as the Lords still has to consider and fail to pass the same bill as originally introduced in the Commons, in two consecutive sessions, the Parliament Acts don’t apply very well to complex modern legislation which has been amended during its passage through the Commons, or which the Government wishes to change after that first introduction.  Self-restraint is therefore the key to limiting the Lords to being only a revising chamber, and the recent debates about the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies bill showed how strained that is becoming.  A House that has been largely elected, and all of whose members are clearly entitled to be legislators, will be much more likely to use its powers to the full.  The best explanation given for this hope is that no member of the Lords will have a more recent mandate than the whole of the House of Commons, and many will have a much older one.  In reality, though, that’s unlikely to cut much ice with legislators who have nothing to lose.  Defining and limiting the powers of the Lords is a hugely difficult task, though, and couldn’t be done effectively by ordinary statute (which could always be repealed or amended).  So that implies the far more ambitious task of a written constitution.

There are, though, two good things about the bill.  First, there is the proposal to use STV to elect the reformed House.  Having a different electoral system to the lower house is a good thing, and common around the world.  STV, coupled with long non-renewable terms, means that parties will have relatively little active role in the working of the House, as whips will have few means by which to enforce party discipline.  They can’t threaten to block re-selection, as that won’t be a possibility anyway.  They can’t point to the role of the party in getting a candidate elected, as STV means it’s the candidate’s own standing and support that were responsible.  This method of selection is the best way of securing a House that is both elected and independently minded.  It’s therefore likely to be particularly vigorously opposed by the political parties.

The other strong feature of this proposal is the areas proposed to be used as electoral constituencies.  It’s not clear what these will be in England – larger than counties, but smaller than the standard regions, it seems.  But Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will be single constituencies in their own rights.   If represented on a population basis, that suggests there would be a total of 18 members elected in Scotland (six each time), and 12 from Wales (four each time).  (Northern Ireland is offered over-representation, of nine members, to ensure three would be elected at each election and so both communities could expect to be represented.)

There have long been problems with territorial representation in the Lords.  These are probably most acute for outlying regions of England – there aren’t very many peers with connections in the East Midlands, and a disproportionate number who come from and live in London or south eastern England.  Scotland and Wales suffer from this too, even if they’ve done pretty well in the most recent rounds of appointments (see HERE and HERE).  This proposal is about the best way of combining a largely elected house with the role in representing the UK’s nations and regions that there has been, though – an ambition set out in the Wakeham Royal Commission’s report of 2000, but largely overlooked in various reform schemes since then.  The idea of the Lords representing the various parts of the UK, while the Commons depends on localities (in form) and party interests (in substance, very largely), is an attractive one.  What’s surprising, given the febrile political climate in Scotland, is that little has been made of this other than in some comments by Lord Strathclyde (reported here).  One would expect a UK Government that was keen to emphasise the value of the Union to stress this aspect of the plans.  In reality, it’s there, if these plans survive the attempts to strangle them at birth.

Some people have already used the term ‘senate’ to describe the proposed chamber.  It’s certainly not the sort of senate one finds in federal systems like the US or Switzerland, guaranteeing equal representation to each constituent unit – nor, in the UK’s circumstances, could it be.  If it resembles a senate, it’s more like those of France or Italy.   Peter (Lord) Hennessy has criticised the proposals (in the Telegraph, here) as the sort of radical solution proposed by ‘engineers’ that often fail to work, or have major unintended consequences, and which ensure some members ‘are there primarily because they know things, rather than believe things’.  All true, and Hennessy also points to a number of substantial ameliorative schemes that are already on the table and could be enacted with relatively little fuss or delay.  But why haven’t they been?  One major flaw in schemes for incremental reform is their failure to deliver.  The looming Scottish referendum suggests that there’s an urgent need to make the UK’s institutions work for the modern world, and Lords reform has to be part of that.

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1 Comment

Filed under Conservatives, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Westminster

One response to “Another dance round the mulberry bush – Lords reform returns

  1. Mike Blundell

    The Midlothian question applies to the House of Lords as much as it does to the House of Commons. Legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly do not come to the House of Lords. The proposed reform does not deal with representatives from Wales and Scotland participating in matters which had been devolved.

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