Wednesday 11 July 2012

More Lords Reform

Many people, including me, are in favour of Lords Reform, but do not support the current proposals, or do so begrudgingly, hoping for later changes. Others are against reform, or for going backwards. So I'm going to try to explain why I'm in favour of reform more clearly, and then look at how to fix the constitutional problems with it.

The House of Lords is meant to act as a reviewing chamber, which more closely assesses the Bills put through the Commons. A replacement Senate, or whatever it might be called, should essentially do the same thing. The crucial thing for any reform is that it aids scrutiny, and does not diminish it. The current set up of the Lords is not only undemocratic (although the EU is a far larger problem on that count), but it is currently full of Labour peers that the Blair and Brown governments stuffed there, holding up reforms and generally getting in the way politically, instead of adding scrutiny to the Bills put through the Commons. Let us not forget that this is just a clearing up exercise for the "temporary" 1911 Parliament Act, which states in the preamble the desire to replace the HoL with an elected second chamber.

Most of the current Lords are not the "experts" that some would have you believe but former politicians, high level party donors, or simply folks like Lord Skidelsky, who is only an "expert" in the way that he is an academic, who frequently gets things horribly wrong. I would be very happy to have this lot chucked out. If the people were sufficiently expert, they need only convince the voters of it and they could get back in. If they don't win the votes, but they are still sufficiently expert, then they can still be called in to give evidence, as people do currently (because, as it turns out, the Lords isn't full of the experts that you need).

One of the issues from the pro-reform side (or at least the pro, current plans side) that irks me is the idea that a referendum is unnecessary because this issue was in the manifestos of all three main parties and was in the coalition agreement. However, none of those documents mentioned anything specific about these reforms, and the idea of there being a referendum is sound, as this is a clear constitutional issue over how the nation is governed.

What should the Other Place look like then? Well, being voted in by region might work, with say 3 or 6 senators/lords for each region/constituency, depending on what size the regions are. If you elect in thirds (with votes every two years), it means the people of the region get a fairly regular say in scrutiny, but the body as a whole is less likely to be based on the whims of national politics. Perhaps 6 year terms like the US senate would work, with the time between general elections cut to 3 or 4 years whilst we're at it. It is more likely to give you the sort of varied group that might do a good job of scrutinising bills. You definitely do not want a party list system as you are aiming for strong scrutiny, which means the less party politics the better, so of course PR voting doesn't make much sense (as it groups people into parties by nature). Perhaps there should be no pay for these Lords, so that they have to work separately as well, meaning that they are less likely to just become career politicians.

After bringing through something akin the the reforms I've outlined, the idea should then be put to a referendum as a matter of course, it is an issue over how the country is governed. The same reason we should have had referendums on the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties (they altered the relationship between the UK and the EU, losing some sovereignty); the way we were governed was greatly altered and it would be difficult if not impossible to revert by a new government, unlike normal Acts of Parliament.

So yes, I do want reform of the Lords, but it needs to be carefully thought out in respect to the purpose of the second chamber, i.e. scrutiny, and not just become a commons Mk.2, with the worst excesses taken further. At the end, whatever the composition looked like, it should be put to a referendum, because in principle, it is the right thing to do for this sort of thing. Besides, how do you keep a straight face whilst arguing that the Lords needs to be more democratic, whilst refusing the right of the people a say it how it is altered?

P.S. This was the last post on Lords Reform. Will find something more interesting to write about tomorrow.

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