"The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it"
Aneurin Bevan

Monday, 23 April 2012

Lords Reform

The Parliament Act 1911 asserted the supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords. Of course, at the time, since half of the population was excluded from voting in elections for the House of Commons, this is not quite the case of democracy winning over the hereditary principle and patronage, but it was almost there. Since then, there has long been a campaign to abolish or further reform the House of Lords, and these are my thoughts on the subject.

As a result of the Parliament Act (and subsequent acts) the primary aim of the Lords is as a revising chamber: the members scrutinise laws and suggest amendments. The Commons often accepts the Lords amendments, but they don't have to, at the end of a bill's passage there is a process of "ping-pong" where the Commons amend the amendments made by the Lords before passing the bill back to the upper chamber. The Lords cannot amend clauses, or whole bills, that have been designated "money bills" by the Speaker of the Commons. In addition, the Salisbury Convention is that the Lords should not block government bills that were mentioned in the government party's manifesto, although its not clear what happens in the event of a coalition: does the convention apply to the coalition parties' manifestos or the Coalition Agreement? The scrutinising of bills is very important and helps to prevent bad laws being made.

Lords reform has a long history, and there are many issue that people cite when demanding reform. Some people point to the "privilege" aspect of the Lords, saying that in a modern democracy we should not allow people to be part of our legislature merely because an ancient ancestor pleased the monarch enough to be made a Lord. The House of Lords Act 1999 partially fixed this by removing the right of all but 92 hereditary peers. The problem is that there are still 92 people in that chamber who are there because of who their father was, rather than on their own abilities. The current law says that when one of these Lords dies there is an election between the members of the Lords to determine which hereditary peer will take up the place. This partially breaks the hereditary principle on the membership of the Lords, but it is hardly democracy since the hereditary principle is used to determine the "candidates" for the vacant post.

Other people cite patronage as an issue of the Lords. The majority of members of the House of Lords are appointed life peers, and most are recommended by the political parties. The political parties naturally choose their own supporters, or (most controversially, during the time of the Liberal Prime Minister, Lloyd George) those people who gain the patronage of a political party through party donations: cash for peerages. Political party nominations are vetted by the Independent Appointments Commission and the Commission also recommends non-party political members ("peoples' peers"). Some politically appointed peers are hard-working and contribute to the revising process, but too many regard the appointment as entry into the most exclusive club in London and are never seen in debates.

The usual argument is that if the House of Lords is wholly elected then these issues of privilege and patronage will disappear. The problem with this approach is that modern politics is all about privilege and patronage. While there are some MPs who have been elected through their own hard work, there are many who were selected as a candidate in a safe seat through patronage. And there are several MPs who are the children, siblings or even spouses of MPs, and one could argue that they received their nominations as much through their family connections as their abilities: there is some hereditary principle in the Commons too!

Some single-minded ideologues argue against the House of Lords with a foghorn argument of "democracy". The argument is that in a modern country the entire legislature must be elected "by the people". This argument is enticing, but when we have a monarch, and we have a Prime Minister that is not directly elected (and can be changed without a General Election), why focus on the relatively powerless House of Lords when there are more pressing violations of the democratic principle that could be changed?

My main concern is what we will miss if we make the Lords wholly elected. The House of Lords has eight hundred members. Ninety two are hereditary and their are 21 Church of England bishops. Almost a third of peers are Crossbenchers, and have no political affiliation. This is a concept that is alien to the highly political House of Commons, because Crossbench peers amend laws without party doctrine or ideology. These are Lords who have been appointed because of what they have achieved: scientists, musicians, artists, doctors, people who have run charities. They bring to the House of Lords an expertise that a politician can never obtain.

There is a wealth of experience and knowledge in this collection of people and the expert nature of the chamber is ideal for an organisation whose main purpose is to scrutinise and amend legislation. If the upper chamber is elected it is unlikely that such people will wish to stand for election, for the simple reason that they are not politicians. The result of elections to the upper chamber is that we will merely get a mirror image of the House of Commons: politicians voting according to the party whip. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons why the political parties want Lords reform because too often the House of Lords will not conform to what the politicians tell us is best for us. If we are to revise the House of Lords we need to make it less like the House of Commons, not more like it. Some people have suggested that a different election process could be used to avoid the issue of replication. The problem is that this could mean that the upper chamber claims it has more legitimacy than the Commons because of its "fairer" election process.

I propose that the House of Lords should remain wholly appointed, but that the nomination process and the term of office should be reformed. You may think that this is against my democratic instincts, but it is not, in fact, I think that it will be more democratic because it will exclude political patronage.

First, there must be some tidying up. The new chamber should be revising only and so after reform legislation should only originate in the Commons. There should also be rules about how long bills can be delayed (currently it is one year). The new chamber should also have no hereditary Lords (or rather, none there merely because of their title).

Members of the new chamber will be by appointment, but without political patronage. The important point is that the people nominated for appointment to the House will be elected by membership organisations. The Independent Appointments Commission will determine which membership organisations will provide nominations, and these organisations will elect one of their members to the House. The appointments should be fixed term and at the end of the term, the member can stand to be re-elected (I am not in favour of term limits). There could also be a right of recall to take into account situations when a member has proven to be unsuitable, the members of the membership organisation will have to vote to enact the recall.

If the Commons has fixed term parliaments then appointments to the new chamber should be of a different cycle (so if the Commons is 5 years, the Lords appointments could be for 3 or 7 years). To keep some continuity, rather than appointing the House all in one go, the appointments should be staggered (say, a third at a time).

So what sort of membership organisations would nominate members of the new chamber? I suggest it should be a wide range, but the important point is that there is a membership. This will mean that trades unions, churches, charities and professional organisations can nominate members. The Royal Colleges of medicine will have a member each, as will the Chartered Institute of Accountants, the Institute of Physics, RSPCA and the National Trust. The Inns of Court and other lawyers organisations will ensure that there are some legal experts in the chamber. Special care would be taken to make sure that most religions have a member. In addition, organisations like the AA and RAC and sports organisations like the Amateur Athletics Association will have members. The whole point is to ensure that as wide a range of experts as possible are in the chamber.

Each organisation must hold a ballot of their members, in effect, they will do this to nominate their most expert member who will provide their knowledge of their area of expertise to make our laws better. While there will be canvassing of members, this will not be the same as politicians canvassing for votes, for the simple reason that politicians are elected for one reason only: that they are good at getting elected, whereas the members of the new chamber will be elected for their ability and expertise in a specific area.

This proposal will make sure that political patronage is removed almost entirely from the process, while maintaining a chamber of experts elected by their peers. If the range of membership organisations who provide nominations is kept as wide as possible, then it means that everyone in the country will have at least one opportunity to vote for a nomination, and this will give a democratic legitimacy to the appointment.

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