Ideas for House of Lords Reform

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Photo: By U.S. Departement of Defense (http://defense.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Reform of the House of Lords is one of those curiosities in British political history. Proposals for reforming the upper house have surfaced on occasions since the Commons first debated hereditary peerages in 1886 and 1888. Yet 128 years later there is still little visible agreement on how a reformed House should look and operate.

This is where pro-reform advocates have found life difficult. On one hand there has not been widespread enthusiasm for change with Liberal Democrats championing Lords reform whereas the Conservatives have largely been in favour of the status quo. In the latest efforts, debated in the summer of 2012, proposals tabled for reform were opposed by 91 Tory MPs.

On the other hand disagreements abound over how to reform the Lords. Should the chamber be 100% elected? Should a proportion of members be appointed by an independent panel with the rest elected and on a regional basis? Should ‘peers’ be term-limited? Those who oppose reform can accuse their opponents of lacking a clear, coherent blueprint for change. The BBC’s Nick Robinson had reported before the debate of the said reform proposals in 2012, that the general view inside the ‘Westminster village’ was that the proposals wouldn’t be enacted because those who didn’t want any change would unite with those who wanted different kinds of change and defeat the Coalition’s plans. To illustrate, in 1968 proposals for a wholly elected Lords brought together an unusual pairing in Michael Foot (who favoured the abolition of the House of Lords) and Enoch Powell (who backed the status quo) in opposing the measure.

Is reform necessary? I believe it is. I view New Labour’s changes in 1999 to be incomplete as peers are chosen either by political party leaders or they assume their seats for services rendered by their ancestors centuries ago. This blog post will outline a few of my ideas for changing the British upper house.

1) Remove the hereditary peers

It seems extraordinary in a 21st century democracy that 92 of our legislators (and remember that until 1999 that figure was 600) are entitled to their positions because of their birthright. Does inheriting your peerage make you a more capable parliamentarian?

2) Remove the Church of England bishops

In a country with multiple Christian churches, that is multi-faith and also largely secular why should Anglican bishops, and not just a handful but twenty-six, automatically receive seats?

3) Strike a balance between elected and appointed members

With regards to the elected /appointed members debate the new House of Lords could be two thirds elected and one third appointed. To the current format’s credit I think there is a lot to be said for having appointed peers from a variety of different backgrounds with different experiences and expertise. On the current Lords roll call there’s Lord Winston (science), Lord Sugar (business and enterprise) and Lord Puttnam (arts and film) among others. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert, and others have observed that countries that elect their upper house, the composition of these houses is not too dissimilar to the composition of the lower house in these countries. Hence there is an evident depth of knowledge and expertise from an appointed system.

4) Appointed peers would be selected by an independent body

This is a more complex part of Lords reform – how would appointed members be elected? Here I have looked to Ireland and, in what may come as a surprise to many, Malawi, for ideas. Forty-three of the sixty members of the Irish upper house, the Seanád, are chosen by local and national politicians from five panels of individuals with backgrounds in one of five fields or ‘panels’ (administrative, agricultural, cultural and education, industry and commerce and labour.) Similarly one third of Malawian senators are chosen by senators from the elected majority of interest groups ranging from business and education to unions and disabled citizens. The problem with the Irish-Malawian style system is that the selection process remains in the hands of politicians and a criticism aimed at the process in Ireland is that cronyism and partisanship remain prevalent with former politicians, party loyalists and donors receiving their rewards.

No selection panel can be truly independent and selectors can all be swayed by their own political beliefs and partisan attachments. However, an Irish-Malawi-style appointments system selected by an independent body of people also drawn from sectors such as education, charities, commerce, labour etc. would be an improvement.

5) Members of a reformed British upper house could be elected from national constituencies (England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland)

The 2012 reform proposals recommended the adoption of regional multi-member constituencies, yet why not have national constituencies as opposed to South-East England and Yorkshire & Humberside etc.? Numerous upper houses aim to ensure regional representation, most notably federations like the US, Switzerland and South Africa or cultural, linguistic and ethnic groups/minorities (see parts of Africa and Northern Ireland parliaments.)

I know people will cite population differences, but why should England be divided into what are rather artificial regions when Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales remain as whole constituencies? California and Texas remain as complete entities in the Congress despite being thirty times larger than Wyoming and Alaska. As many people feel an attachment to one of the states that make up the United Kingdom, would it not be a legitimate suggestion to have national constituencies represented in a reformed House of Lords? Another solution here would be to have members elected and selected to represent the whole of the UK instead of pre-determined constituencies, a system based on the lines of Israel’s Knesset.

Reforming the House of Lords is not a political priority and to make matters more difficult to those of us advocating reform, the question of ‘how’ to reform the chamber divides many of us. No system will be perfect and it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. History has shown that constitutional changes often happen infrequently. A good place to start in reforming the upper house would be to first remove the remaining hereditary peers and to take the selection process out of the hands of senior politicians.