The coalition government is planning to reform the House of Lords. On the face of it that’s a bloody good idea. After all why should a bunch of unelected old men and (a few) women in ermine cloaks have the right to play a part in the governance of our county?
But the politics of the situation are likely to get in the way of the type of radical reform that is required.
For a start the current moves towards reform as seen very much as a Nick Clegg project. After failing so spectacularly with his Alternative Vote plans, which were roundly defeated in a referendum, he is keen to accomplish some sort of constitutional change during his time in government.
Does he have the support of his coalition partners, David Cameron and the Conservatives? Well in theory he does. The Tories were elected on a manifesto that said, “We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of radical reform but a commitment nevertheless.
Many backbench Tory MPs are set against reform though. The Lords is traditional don’t you know? It’s part of our heritage. There are a few in the lowest ranks of the government who might be prepared to resign over the issue. And several cabinet ministers are said to be arguing against giving parliamentary time to the issue.
There is also likely to be a disagreement over whether the House of Commons can reform the House of Lords without a referendum. A public vote is the standard practice for all major constitutional changes. Nick Clegg however feels there is no need as reform was in all three major parties’ manifestos and therefore has the express consent of the electorate already.
So what exactly would a new upper house look like?
The government’s 2011 draft bill proposed a much reduced second chamber of 300 members. 240 of these would be elected by the single transferable vote (STV) system for terms of fifteen years with the rest to be appointed, including 12 bishops from the Church of England.
A joint committee of the two Houses has studied the issue over the past few months and come up with a report. It is pretty much along the same lines, although it does recommend a 450 member house. But the committee was split – nine of its twenty six members voted against elected peers and eight opposed a referendum.
The argument for abolishing the House of Lords is clear. It is an anachronism with no democratic legitimacy or accountability. Its members either inherit their seats or are appointed through various processes and they cannot be removed except by an Act of Parliament. Even a jail sentence doesn’t mean the end for a Noble Lord.
There is a case for a second house as a revising chamber. But there has to be a clear separation of powers between it and the Commons, or gridlock could result. My argument has always been that this should be part of a full review of our political processes that would result in a written Constitution.
Let’s get some new names while we are at it. Lord and Commons in the twenty first century? Come on.
But why propose an upper house that is partially elected? Such a half baked compromise makes no sense at all. If it is undemocratic for all of them to be appointed then surely it is equally wrong for some to be appointed? And just who would select the Appointments Commission that would make the choices?
In particular, there can be no justification for Church of England Bishops retaining seats in a new upper chamber by right. The Church and state should be totally separate. Why should representatives of one religion have a special place in our political system?
A reduction in the number of members from the current 800 or so (117 appointed by the current Prime Minister) to a more manageable number makes perfect sense. But terms of fifteen years each is much too long. And the proposal is that no one can stand for a second term. So once elected they would know that they never need face another election. There must be accountability to the electorate and that means renewing the mandate on a regular basis.
A modern, fully elected upper house could be part of a much more democratic structure. Let’s hope that our politicians can find a way to resolve this issue without resorting to the type of fudged design that could introduce fatal flaws before the new system is even on the statute books.
One final thought: if we can manage to get rid of the unelected and unaccountable throwback to bygone times that is the House of Lords, let’s put the royal family next on the abolition list.