Saturday, March 10, 2007

Lords Reform

The House of Commons voted for all all-elected second chamber by 337 to 224 on Wednesday. The 80%-elected option was also supported by a narrower majority of 305-267. All the other options on offer were rejected: 60%-elected was defeated by 214 votes, 50%-elected (favoured by the Government) by 263 votes, and 40% and 20%-elected without a formal vote. The all-appointed option was rejected by 179 votes. MP’s also voted by a majority of 280 to remove the 92 remaining hereditary peers. It seems some MP’s who voted against the 80%-elected option then went on to vote for the 100-elected option on the calculation that this will be rejected by the Lords.
The votes were “indicative”. It remains for the Government to draft a Bill, and it is being suggested that it might in fact opt for the 80-elected option (Gordon Brown voted for this). The proposals published by Jack Straw last year envisaged a smaller House of Lords (540 instead of 746 members) and a maximum time in office of 15 years. Disappointingly, the “spiritual lords” are apparently to remain. Straw also envisaged reform as a lengthy process, taking as long as 15 years to complete.
When the Bill is finally drafted it will, presumably, pass through the Commons. If the Lords then rejects it the Government has the option of using the Parliament Act (Straw has hinted that he is prepared to do this). However, in Friday’s Guardian Tony Benn argued for “an alternative that would be more decisive: a referendum…” Faced with a “Yes” vote in a referendum the Lords would probably acquiesce.
The principal argument against an all-elected chamber is that if elected the Lords would acquire democratic legitimacy and could become a rival to the Commons. This is why a “mixed” chamber is preferred by many who favour reform; others prefer an all-appointed chamber. However, it seems to Politaholic that if the powers of the Lords are put on a clear statutory basis (better still, set out plainly in a written constitution) this problem need not arise. Although elected the Lords would have been elected to a revising chamber with strictly limited powers; to exceed those powers would be unconstitutional. The Lords could be wholly elected and the priority of the Commons retained.
Another problem concerns the manner of their election. In Wednesday’s Guardian Simon Jenkins argued that “…MP’s are being asked to choose between scheme A, whereby the political establishment chooses lords as now, and scheme B, whereby the political establishment continues to choose lords by deciding who gets on the party list for ‘election’”. If the regional list system is used the result will “not be an elected upper-house but a party-selected upper house which is why most MP’s will vote for it”. (Billy Bragg’s “secondary mandate” has the same flaw: it too uses party lists). In these circumstances, Jenkins argues appointment is better than election so long as patronage is removed from Downing Street. Jenkins has a point but this is not really an argument against the principle of election; it is an argument against the use of the regional list system. There are alternatives: lords could be elected using STV.
And why do they have to be called lords? What about “Member of the Revising Chamber” (MRC), just to make it plain what their job is and is not?


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