A new angle on House of Lords reform
In a stimulating and challenging departure, Owen Barder has proposed a completely new approach to House of Lords reform: a second chamber whose members would represent, not geographical constituencies or areas, but sectional interests and groups. His proposal deserves to be read in full, but the examples he gives of the groups which might be represented are:
- 400 Senators elected by vocational groups (eg shopworkers, civil servants, farmers, small businesses, stockbrokers, artists)
- 150 Senators elected by the country’s largest membership organizations (eg Trades Unions, Churches, Mosques, UK Athletics, Automobile Association, RSPB, Oxfam, Football Supporters’ Club)
- 50 Senators elected by designated professional, industry and representative groups (eg CBI, Royal Society, British Medical Association, Royal Geographic Society).
There would be a ban on Senators having party political affiliations; they would be eligible to serve for a maximum of two 6-year terms, rotating every two years, and would be unable to move to or from the House of Commons except after an interval of at least 10 years. They would be elected by Single Transferable Vote. Senators would not be eligible to be ministers. The plan is worked out in a good deal more detail than in this brief summary, and includes a compelling and lucid rationale. It clearly merits (but seems at present not to be attracting) serious debate.
I’m reluctant to risk appearing to pick holes in such a welcome attempt to approach the problem from a wholly new angle, but it does necessarily prompt (not, please, ‘beg’) a number of questions, to which its ingenious author can no doubt provide convincing answers. Much the most important of these must be the powers and role of a parliamentary chamber with the membership proposed. What will these 600 worthy and miscellaneous people actually do? Presumably the Senate would have similar powers and functions to those of the present Upper House — basically, scrutinising and reviewing draft legislation, with the right to delay for a limited period Bills that fail to command majority support; and, perhaps most important of all, holding the over-mighty executive government to account (a function which the House of Commons no longer usually performs, because of the stranglehold of the party whips over back-benchers and because a major and successful revolt by MPs over a significant government measure is likely to bring down the government which the majority otherwise supports, precipitating an election which could put their political careers in danger). There is no reason in principle why a Senate elected on the basis now proposed should not have much the same powers and functions (provided that it was debarred, like the House of Lords, from discussing or voting on financial measures): its members would be usefully free from subjection to the powers of the party whips or the lure of patronage: but their opposition to objectionable government measures would be no more effective in threatening the future of the government than that of the present House of Lords, if their sole sanction (apart from exposing defects) was to impose a limited delay. There is also the problem that a very large chamber, with an extremely diverse membership and no political party affiliations, would be almost completely unpredictable. Neither the government nor the House of Commons would have any way of knowing, or even of guessing, which way the Senate was likely to jump on any particular proposal. On any specific issue, the great majority of Senators would by definition have no special expertise or knowledge: the representatives of the doctors would be voting on town planning matters while the representatives of the farmers would be voting on education Bills. Would this be a significant improvement on the existing situation, or on the situation that other less radical reform proposals under discussion would produce?
There’s another problem. This would be a very large chamber, bringing the total number of our active legislators at Westminster to more than a thousand. True, that’s no more than in the past, with the old House of Lords: but the great majority of the peers who used to be entitled to attend and vote in the House of Lords hardly ever turned up, except on rare occasions (e.g. when some favourite bloodthirsty rural pastime was under attack from the city slickers in the Other Place). The 600 Senators, all chosen by and representing the interests of their respective groups, with a maximum of 12 years in the Upper House, would be much likelier to treat their membership as a full-time job. Debates routinely attended by four or five hundred Senators, most of them eager to speak, would be hopelessly unwieldy. If the United States, with a far larger population and land area than ours, can manage with 100 Senators, there seems little reason why we should need six times as many.
Other, more practical, questions suggest themselves. How would candidates offering themselves as representatives of (say) the farmers be chosen? Would any old farmer who fancied a parking place in central London for six or twelve years be eligible to stand? He might have to produce names of a given number of supporting farmers, but how would the farmers themselves be able to make a meaningful choice between candidates whom they would not know personally and who would not be standing on any party ticket? How would ordinary workers who are not members of a trade union — now a majority — be represented and how would their candidates be selected? Who would define a ‘church’ entitled to elect representatives? Would Christian Scientists, Mormons, Scientologists, Flat Earthers qualify? How would the vast majority of the population which practises no religion be represented? How would eligibility to vote as a church member be decided? Millions of Britons vaguely define themselves as "Church of England" without ever translating that nominal membership into action except for christenings, weddings — themselves rare events these days — and funerals: would a mere declaration of membership of the C of E be enough to qualify for a vote? If members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are to have their own Senator (Senators?), why not bridge or poker groups with some national association to promote their hobby? The field is in truth so gigantic that it’s hard to imagine ever achieving a national consensus on who should and who should not have a finger in the pie.
No doubt answers to many, perhaps all, of these questions could be devised. But the development of a consensus, even among existing practising politicians, never mind the population at large (including the media!) would be a back-breaking and protracted task, simply because the whole idea is so novel, so far removed from anything that has been debated and argued over in the past 90 years. Of course a good proposal should not be dismissed because of its novelty: but there is an argument for sticking to a plan for second chamber reform which has already come tantalisingly close to achieving all-party, majority support in both houses of parliament: namely, the proposals in the report of February 2002 of Tony Wright’s excellent Select Committee on Public Administration. There is no space to spell these out here: the report speaks for itself. Moreover, I have to declare an interest: I have already set out my own views on House of Lords reform so often and so extensively that I feel entitled to be excused from repeating them here yet again. All right, if you really want to know what they are, you can read what I have written in a submission to the Select Committee; in another, earlier submission to the Lord Chancellor’s Department in response to a consultation exercise; in two letters published in The Times; and in at least one previous entry in Ephems. Download them all, along with the Select Committee report. They will be much more effective than Bournvita.
This is a case where the best, if Owen’s proposals are the best (and they could be), could be the enemy of the good. We’re almost there: a wholly or mainly elected Upper House elected by PR on a different timetable from the Commons and with limits on the length of service permitted. The biggest single obstacle to agreement on this is Tony Blair’s confused fear that a chamber with even a few elected members, and still more a chamber with a majority of elected members, will challenge the primacy of the House of Commons. But the way to assure the continuing primacy of the Commons is to limit the powers of the second chamber, and to continue to have the government of the day chosen by and from the House of Commons — not by denying to one of our two houses of parliament the democratic legitimacy it needs.