One of the biggest issues currently vexing our Parliament and our politicians concerns the very nature and future of our constitution.Two old warhorses – Lord Ashdown and Baroness Boothroyd – have been wheeled out, each passionately defending their side of the argument. And the cause for which such passion is invested? The House of Lords. With the coalition pressing on in its desire to see genuine and thorough reform of Britain’s Upper House, some of the biggest supporters and opponents of the proposed changes are battling on the front lines of the debate, in an effort to further or defeat the government’s aims.
As a traditionalist, I’ve always been a strong supporter of the House of Lords, never quite able to escape the aura of history which surrounds it. And yet, as Britain heads deeper into the 21st century, it becomes harder to defend a chamber of appointed members, which, in the eyes of many people, is increasingly anachronistic.
After hearing Oliver Letwin speak in favour of electing the Lords, I found myself convinced that the House had to be reformed. Letwin was right to emphasise that it is nearly impossible to defend an unelected Upper Chamber holding up the legislation of the elected House of Commons, however noble such action might be. However, Letwin also acknowledged that electing peers by proportional representation will create a conflict between the two Houses of Parliament. With a more representative Lords, which chamber really represents the people? The government has made no effort to address this glaring weakness in their reform proposals, and are instead carrying remorselessly on, fingers in their ears, failing to show the ability to listen which they have demonstrated with other policies.
In the face of the inherently flawed idea of an elected Upper Chamber, yet unable to hide from the fact that it needs to change, I sought to find a middle way of reform. The system I propose is simple, and yet addresses the concerns of both sides of the argument.
I propose that Instead of electing Peers, powers should be handed to County Councils to appoint members to the House of Lords after each general election. This would include the County Councils in England and Wales, as well as the council areas in Scotland, whilst the large number of District Councils in Northern Ireland would require several of these bodies to collectively appoint a Peer. Members of the local community, from any walk of life, would apply to their council to become the peer for that area. The council would then proceed to conduct hearings, in public, to vet and shorten the list of candidates until one had been chosen.
Some advantages of this system become immediately apparent. Peers would have a constituency to represent, acting as a last place of appeal when calling on your MP has failed. The cost would be considerably lower than holding an election, which would no doubt run into the millions. More importantly,
this system tackles the lack of democratic authority which plagues the current Lords, whilst at the same time preserving the representative legitimacy of the Commons. Appointment by local councillors would make peers accountable to the people’s local representatives, as well as allowing the Commons to maintain its place as the more representative chamber – the House of the ‘Commons’. Moreover, having
councillors select Lords would increase public engagement with local politics, particularly given that a voter would know that in choosing their local councillor, they would also be choosing, indirectly, their other member of Parliament.
One of the big concerns addressed by those opposed to election of the Lords is that it robs the chamber of its position as the ‘House of Experts’. My proposal would allow these ‘experts’ to apply from different
fields, whether they are doctors, businessmen, trade unionists, teachers or soldiers. All areas could be covered, without the danger of having a chamber full of career politicians, an inevitable result of electing the Lords. Because the government would have no say in appointing peers, there would be no system
of whips in the Upper House, enabling it finally to act as the independent check on the executive that it was always supposed to be. The tyranny of the government in the Upper House would come to an end, and legislation would be effectively scrutinised in a manner not only different from, but also more
thorough and extensive than the House of Commons. The Commons would remain, as always, the dominant chamber, but the Lords would no longer be hamstrung by governmental pressure in its efforts to hold the executive to account.
Only one question remains: “What’s in a name?” The coalition, with little thought, decided that the elected Upper House should be called the Senate. But what is the point of renaming the chamber, mimicking the
institutions of the USA – a fetish borrowed from the previous government? The Lords is steeped in history, and yet the Conservative Party, a party I have always backed because it never forgets this country’s heritage, now feels it is necessary to toss aside this history for no apparent reason. Yes, reform the
House; yes, change what doesn’t work; but don’t change the name for the sake of superficial appearances. The Upper House should be called the House of Lords, and its members should be called Peers. In the words of a friend of mine, an ardent leftist: “I don’t care what it’s called so long as it has more democratic legitimacy”. Few would lose sleep over the name of the Upper House, so
why make it an issue of reform?
I feel that this middle-way, a compromise solution, would satisfy some of the demands from both sides of the argument. It would also create an Upper House with greater democratic legitimacy, and which would be able, as a House of experts, appointed by local councils, to effectively hold the government to account in a manner better than an elected Lords or the current Lords.