Two letters to the Times
Two of my letters, published by The Times in 1999 and 2002, appealing for second thoughts on just three of the government’s proposals for reform of the House of Lords:
The Times, November 4 1999
Missed chances on Lords reform?
From Sir Brian Barder
Sir, If leaks from Lord Wakeham’s royal commission (report, November 1) are accurate, we are in danger of once again missing vital opportunities for modernising the second chamber of our Parliament and for removing some of its most obvious anomalies. Do we not all, or nearly all, hold these truths to be self-evident?
1. Justice would be served by unscrambling the judicial functions of the House of Lords from its legislative functions and setting up instead a supreme court headed by a judge who is manifestly and institutionally independent of government and legislature.
2. If organised religion is to have the privilege of automatic representation, there can be no justification in our contemporary multicultural society for granting it only to the Church of England. The choice is between either giving second chamber seats to all the country’s major faiths, Churches and sects (with the near-impossibility of deciding rationally where to draw the line, and the problem of fairness for the vast majority of Britons who actively practise no religion at all), or not having special representation for any faiths or Churches in Parliament apart from that which they can secure by ordinary election. The latter seems clearly to be the right course.
3. If directly elected members of the new second chamber are a minority of the total membership, or – worse – if there are no directly elected members at all, the chamber will be seen as having little or no more democratic legitimacy than the old House of Lords: the appointed members, even if appointments are filtered through some nominally independent body, will be regarded (often unfairly) as the poodles of the government of the day. Legitimacy can be secured only by the direct election of either a majority, or the whole, of its membership. The way to ensure that the second chamber will not challenge the primacy of the Commons is strictly to limit its powers (even if these are somewhat enlarged by comparison with the existing Lords), not its legitimacy.
It seems scarcely credible that “the forces of conservatism” may be on the verge of frustrating measures to give effect to all three of these principles. It’s hard to imagine another chance for implementing such basic reforms for many years, once the current changes in the second chamber have been decided and enacted.
The Times, January 7th, 2002
From Sir Brian Barder
Sir, On November 4, 1999, you published a letter from me expressing concern about forecasts, later proved accurate, of the likely recommendations of Lord Wakeham’s Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords.
I urged that we should not lose the unrepeatable opportunity: to separate the judicial from the legislative functions of the second chamber; to remove from it the indefensible representation of one particular religious denomination and to ensure the new chamber’s, and thus Parliament’s, democratic legitimacy by providing that all, or a substantial majority of, its members be directly elected, perhaps by proportional representation. The supremacy of the House of Commons can be safeguarded by the limits on the second chamber’s powers, not by a blatantly undemocratic system of appointing its members.
Although these proposals have been widely supported in public debates in the media and in Parliament, none of them was put forward by the Wakeham Commission and none is included in the Government’s consultative White Paper of last November.
If the timid and inadequate “reforms” of the House of Lords outlined in the White Paper are eventually adopted and pushed through Parliament (in the face of grave misgivings, we may be sure, on all sides of both Houses), we shall have lost the only chance in our lifetimes to put right these obvious anomalies and anachronisms of the existing parliamentary system.
History would not readily forgive such a sad failure of nerve and imagination.
The deadline for reactions to the White Paper is January 31. Those who strongly favour at least the three genuine reforms summarised above still have time (but only just) to urge their views on the Government by contacting Laura Beaumont at the Lord Chancellor’s Department at Millbank.
No harm in protesting also, while we’re at it, at the ludicrous proposal that, notwithstanding the sensible intention to divorce membership of the peerage from that of the Upper House of Parliament, the second chamber should continue to be called “the House of Lords”.