David Melding says we should think of devolution when reforming the upper chamber
House of Lords reform has been imminent since 1911, which says it all really. In that seminal year, the nature of Britain’s parliamentary democracy was forcefully confirmed. There was to be no high Edwardian mix of democracy and oligarchy. The Commons became the supreme chamber and the obvious was clearly stated. Only a government directly responsible to the people (then just the male of the species!) could be counted democratic. The lingering co-equality of the chambers of Parliament ended abruptly. It would no longer be possible for a Prime Minister to sit in the Lords or for their lordships to have a veto on financial and constitutional matters.
Today few disagree that the Lords must be anchored more firmly in a democratic and transparent process. The most direct approach would be to elect the chamber, but a hybrid system of election and appointment could also meet many of the strongest criticisms made against the House of Lords. However, the dissolution honours list, which sent over 50 new peers to the upper chamber, was an unexpected profusion which does nothing to encourage speculation that reform is around the corner. Amongst the ennobled is our own Mike German – a preferment that will be widely welcomed. Few will doubt his ability to uphold the dignity of the peerage.
The soon-to-be Lord German gamely remarked that he hoped to help abolish his new dignity. He expects a reformed House of Lords to at last become a reality by 2015. I too hope we can get Mike out of ermine and back into plain, democratic cloth… but I am not holding my breath. The real problem is not that the House of Lords has been undemocratic but that it has worked admirably as it is, thank you very much. This may be a happy accident but the gifts of serendipity should not be casually cast aside. Its success is borne of past failure. It has made a virtue of its inferior status and become an effective reviewing chamber that has replaced undemocratic power with merited influence. Electing the Lords could upset this subtle balance.
A lateral thought: why not reflect Britain’s devolved constitution in the composition of the House of Lords? Indeed we could push further and seek to remedy other constitutional maladies. Let’s start with that mainstay of federal systems: disproportionate membership of the second chamber. If 200 members of the Lords were to be elected it could be stipulated that each of the Home Nations would elect no fewer than 40 members. This would also counterbalance moves to equalise the size of constituencies for the House of Commons. Consequently the dominance of English members in the Commons – a problem when UK affairs are discussed – would be offset in the Lords. I would favour the appointment of 100 peers on a UK basis to represent Britain’s diverse communities and interests – the church (and other religious bodies) industry, the unions, academia and so on. This would allow the House of Lords to retain something like its present reflection of national life. Such a chamber would complement not compete with the Commons.
Use of STV to elect the Lords would allow for the imbalances created by first-past-the-post for the Commons to be rectified somewhat. Another constraint present in the Commons could be loosened in the Lords. Party discipline brings much rigour to British politics but it can go too far and stifle innovation. Long terms of office – say 8 or 10 years – would mitigate the force of the party whip. Room for independent thought would be extended further still if Lords were ineligible for re-election. Finally, PR would allow smaller parties a greater chance of representation in Parliament. In an increasingly multi-party system this would be seen as fairer and might encourage voter engagement.
A reformed House of Lords (a Senate?) should aim to work differently and in a more inclusive spirit. This happens to a certain extent now in the Lords, and such good practice needs to be built upon. Recent advances in the pre-scrutiny of legislation should be extended. Committees could grant speaking rights to key communities and interested parties when discussing the desirability of legislation in a particular area. Wider consultation could be undertaken with much more evidence gathering outside London. Finally, I think 25 or so Lords should be appointed by ballot to act as the people’s tribunes. Batty to ballot? Maybe, but this is how it could work. Members of the public who could demonstrate that they are independent of interests represented in the chamber (political parties, churches, industry and so on) could apply for inclusion on a list from which Lords would be appointed by ballot. No one could be forced to serve and there would be a basic test of intent.
Whatever we do to the Lords it is time to get on with it. Let’s be imaginative and build on the best aspects of parliamentary tradition but with a few innovative twists. I doubt that reform can be delivered in time for the centenary of the 1911 Parliament Act but let’s not allow things to drag on for another 100 years!