Reforming the House of Lords will only really mean something by making serious, far reaching changes. This article provides my justification, and a proposal for such change.
Summary of constitutional problems.
Reform of the House of Lords will only really work if there is serious change to meet the constitutional problems which can be summarised as follows:
- Britain is committed to a bicameral parliament with the lower house representing the people through a universal franchise and an appointed upper house as a revising chamber with an assorted collection of limited powers. Therefore, the upper house cannot have a similar franchise and membership without challenging the lower house powers of taxation and legislation.
- Under the British constitution, by convention, all senior members of the government are drawn from the members of the Houses of Parliament. In an age when the management of the country is now more important than fundamental policy differences, resulting in dramatically alternative approaches to government, the ability to be elected through the party and constituency system is no longer any guarantee of potential ministerial competence.
- Given the wide availability of electronic communication, individuals are now more important than parties and specific policies more important than party platforms. There is thus a great degree of cynicism about the political system, and dwindling support for parties accompanied by rising support for special interest groups.
- The current power of the government and, in particular, the Prime Minister, to make appointments right across public life has engendered deep disquiet throughout the electorate and serious opposition to a system of appointment to the upper house. If democracy means anything, then, it is argued, there must be direct or indirect participating in all public appointments and, in particular, direct election to the upper house.
- The current House of Lords is too large.(For that matter so is the House of Commons!). It must be a place of serious work and every member must participate. That means a size appropriate to full and regular participation. It has in recent years been populated with both the best and the worst of the political caste, plus many talented neutrals. In future it should be populated by those recognised to be the best from all walks of life.
- The precise powers of the House of Lords are a mixture of convention and law, and the whole relationship with the Commons needs clarity. But to attract the right people and to be really successful, the upper house must have a useful and important function.
- Above all, the present House of Lords is a mess and still has within it all the trappings of a bygone age of privilege and deference. The use of such terms as ‘my Lord’ and the whole panoply of dress and style simply do not fit this age.
Reform of the House of Lords: A 21st Century proposal.
If reform is to address these problems, all of which are surely unarguable, then it must be positive, large and dramatic. I repeat that small changes have small effects and we need big change. So here are my proposals.
- A totally elected upper house. No compromise or fudging. Every member gets elected.
- No party affiliation. In practice ban all participation by political parties. Every member to sit in his or her own right as an individual. Modern communications make this possible.
- Change the name. No longer call it the House of Lords. Perhaps Senate is too American and Forum too Roman. But some new name is essential, with a new honorific title for the members. I would suggest something like the National House, with all members called Honourable.
- A House for the whole Nation. This house must represent all the elements which make up Britain as equally as possible. Its election and constitution must encourage participation by everyone on an equal footing.
- A legislative function. This is a revising chamber but it must also have the power to introduce legislation independently of the government of the day. (The present system of private members bills is totally dominated by the government and there is a real need for an alternative channel.) All such legislation would go before the Commons but with the advantage of having already been developed and scrutinised. It would thus be better drafted and likely to meet the needs of all involved and thus require less parliamentary time. It follows that there would no longer be any government bills introduced in the upper house.
- A revising function. All bills, other than finance, from the Commons to be the subject of detailed scrutiny by a system of legislative committees. Any revisions refused by the Commons (government) to be the subject of negotiation by a joint committee of both houses. But delay limited to one year (session) and the Commons to prevail after one iteration.
- An appointment function.All public appointments to be formalised with specific bodies or persons allowed to nominate particular offices, Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor, Cabinet, Ministers and so on, but all senior positions, except the members of the Government itself, subject to a Committee of Consent and reaffirmed by the house itself. Thus, appointments would be subject to our democracy without being partisan.
- An investigative function. While the commons will continue to monitor and question the government through its committees, the upper house should be able to run committees of enquiry and investigation, either permanent or ad hoc, to look into any matters of public interest. This would at last remove the need for interminable public and private committees of enquiry demanded on every issue, however trivial.
- A government function. Notwithstanding the independence of members, up to, say 40 may be invited to join the government of the day and speak in the upper house for that government.
- 432 members. All the above should be able to be encompassed by 420 full time members (there will be great savings in other areas of public life).
- Members to serve no more than two six-year terms. Giving each member the opportunity to serve for six years will provide for continuity and the development of expertise, while avoiding too much electioneering. It also allows individuals to take unpopular decisions (a tradition of the Lords.). Limiting service to two terms prevents the obvious entrenchment of longevity.
- Members to be subject to a minimum age of 35 and to retire at 75. This is almost too obvious to be justified, but the function of the new house does require the accumulation of experience and knowledge, and the rigours of the job will require a sensible retirement limit.
- The option for members to retire at any time. Members must be able to step down whenever they wish, without any prejudice.
- Dismissal only for serious misconduct, and only by resolution of the whole house. Naturally the house will be the custodian of its own rules, and must also control its members.
- The pay of members to be set by the Commons and will customarily be set below that of the lower house. Expenses commensurate with the work done. No pension rights, but a permanent welfare fund to deal with specific retirement hardship.
- A new franchise and a fair system of election. This is the real heart of the reform and therefore needs fuller explanation, as follows:
- Each elector has a single transferrable vote on a list of candidates. (This means numbering preferences down the list.)
- The whole electorate is divided into 72 lists with six candidates to be elected from each list. (That means about 600,000 voters for each list.)
- These lists will be a mixture of registered interest groups and regions. Among the registered interest groups within a list will be, for example, teachers, doctors, transport workers, as well as the churches and other faiths, and also interest groups such as the Women’s Institute, or Greenpeace. In fact, any body may register to be a group if it can prove it represents 100,000 electors. Obviously, there will be lists that will combine a number of groups with similar interest. As well as say, 36 interest lists, there should be 36 regional lists to allow for those with no special connections.
- Every elector may choose on which list to vote, either an interest or a regional list. If no preference is expressed that elector is allocated to his or her region. Any list that has less than 500,000 will be subject to a second round of bids and if still too small, redistributed to the regional lists. All the lists to be re-formed every six years.
- Candidates may choose which list to apply for and must have the support of 200 registered voters from that list and place a deposit with the appropriate returning officer. A candidate may appear on more than one list but cannot be nominated by the same people, must declare the fact and cannot be elected twice. (Modern computers make the counting of transfer vote lists very easy, almost instantaneous once the data is entered, even if there are many candidates on the list.)
- There will be strict limits to the amount of money and the size of organisation a candidate may use during an election. However, every candidate will be provided with both electronic and hard media free of charge to communicate with the electors of his or her list. There shall be no participation by political parties; candidates will be responsible for their own opinions.
- The vote will be entirely electronic or postal (with electronic scanning) and tied to clear and unique identification. (This will cut out local physical polling with all those costs.) There will need to be teams of local enumerators to ensure that every registered voter has access to this election. The entire election to be conducted nationally. The results to be published centrally.
- The upper house election to be held annually on a special given date, say, the first Thursday in September. One sixth of the members elected each year.
- No by-elections, all vacancies as they arise to be filled by the next successful candidate on the list at the last election, if still available, and subject to confirmation by the House. (This appointment may be limited to run only until the next September election so that lists with vacancies may therefore elect more than one member at that election.)
- There will need to be a transition period and it is suggested that 70 members are elected each of the first six years, and one sixth of the present house retires. (Present Lords may stand during this transition period with no restriction on the number of times they stand.). All the other reforms of the house should be introduced in year one. [The alternative is a ‘big bang’ approach with a majority of the first group of members keeping their seats for less than six years. For example, number one on each list elected serves for six years, number two five years, number three for four years and so on…]
These reforms do address the current problems and the whole spirit of the age. They would result in an attractive and truly representative upper house, democratically elected.
One last point.
The existence of interest group lists means that any suggestion that all lists should be adjusted to favour women, race or class must be resisted. This reform must be completely inclusive and colour blind.