Wednesday, June 27, 2012

We need to work together to find the best system for a fully elected House of Lords

It was the “Bill of Rights” of 1689 that finally put the Monarch in his or her place and institutionalised a Constitutional Monarchy in first England and later the United Kingdom. The line between what the Monarch could do and what was the role of Parliament was established and it hasn't changed much since. The Bill also required that “…election of members of Parliament ought to be free”.

Roll forward more than 300 years and in the main we can be proud that the founding fathers, who established the principles of our Democracy, did a good job. Along the way we have fine-tuned democratic processes broadly ensuring that the practice of the Bill now conforms to the spirit.With one glaring exception and that is the fact that there is nothing “Free” about one of the two Houses of our Parliament.

There is no significant grey area about what Democracy means in respect of a legislature – it means election. A democratic political system may have its imperfections but, as Churchill put it, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." And if we are committed to Democracy, as surely we all are, then we have to be committed also to the election of our leaders.

Which brings us to the House of Lords. The issue ought not to be “Should we have an elected House of Lords?” but “How should an elected House of Lords be constituted?”. Nevertheless there are many politicians and many serious commentators who question whether we should elect the Lords at all. As I have shown this position fails at the very first hurdle – it isn't democratic - and it can be dismissed for this reason. Which brings us to the second question – what sort of elected second chamber should we have?

The Coalition Government’s proposal has 240 elected members and 60 appointed. Let’s dismiss this nonsense out of hand. Once we at last cross the bridge to an elected second chamber let’s not have anybody sitting in it and voting who has not been elected! And the idea that there should still be 12 unelected Church of England Bishops there is too ludicrous to warrant further discussion. Away with them"!

How big should the reformed Upper House be? The United States Senate has 100 elected members – two for each State irrespective as to whether its population is 37million (California) or little more than half a million (Wyoming). This seems a bit odd but the US is a Federal system and in theory each State is equal under the Constitution so there is a constitutional logic to it. In Britain the Lords now, after various Parliament Acts, have primarily reviewing powers  and there is no need for any of its members to relate to any specific geographical constituency.  However there would be an opportunity to change this and if the Lords is to be made up of 300 members as currently proposed (an arbitrary number but it has a gut feel logic to it) for them to be elected from multi-member regional constituencies also feels right. Other second chambers (e.g. that in The Netherlands) do have a regional focus. There are 22 Regions in the UK and they could have elected members proportionate to their populations. But this is just one option and there are others equally valid both in respect of the size of the House and how it is elected. That’s a debate we do need to have.

The Coalition proposes that elected members should sit for 15 years – once again this is a proposal which is arrant undemocratic nonsense and should be dismissed out of hand as such. If Lords elections should take place on the same day as House of Commons elections let’s just leave it at that. Five year terms for both Chambers (if we do hold on to fixed Parliaments). There is no rational argument to the contrary.

So that’s it really. There is much work to do and in a way there is no real urgency – its been more than 300 years since the Bill of Rights and a few more won’t hurt anyone! Nevertheless let’s get moving. Let’s all accept the principle of an elected Upper Chamber and then let’s work at a sensible pace to find the structure and  system of electing it which most buttresses our democracy and improves our Governance.


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