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Time for a British Senate

June 28, 2011

The House of Commons had a five hour debate on reform of the House of Lords.  Last night’s debate followed a two day extravaganza of special pleading by their Lordships, marvelling at the wonder of their unelected special status.

Reform of the House of Lords was started by the Liberal government a century ago.  The preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act (a significant piece of legislation but only three and a half pages long) states “whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately be brought into operation.”  Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill, the three great reforming Liberal ministers, would surely be astonished  to discover that their proposed reform was still struggling to find support a century later.

Lloyd George called the Lords “Mr Balfour’s poodle”.  I’m not sure what animal would be appropriate now but the 21st century Lords is a pretty strange collection of beasts.   First, there’s the 92 remaining hereditary peers, a hangover of the botched Blair reform in 1999.  It is absurd that more than 10% of the membership of one House of Parliament owe their places due to their DNA, or as Lloyd George put it, “chosen at random from the unemployed.”  The absolute bare minimum of reform now should be the removal of the hereditary peers.

Then there’s the 26 Bishops of the Church of England.  Even if you believe in a theocratic element in Parliament, it should not be from a particular denomination of one faith from only one part of the United Kingdom.  I would prefer the removal of guaranteed seats for faith based legislators but stripping them of votes in the House could be a compromise.

The third component are the vast bulk of the current Lords – over 700 creatures of patronage.  Prime Ministers from Macmillan onwards have appointed for life their cronies, donors and assorted members of the national “great and good”.  This enormous body is far in excess of what is needed for a second chamber, particularly one that is unelected.

I feel the case for reform is clear.  Two objections are usually cited by those who are opposed.  First, an elected second chamber would challenge the supremacy of the House of Commons.  I think this is wrong – it would still be clear that the general election for MPs in the House of Commons would decide the composition of the Government.  I think this could be strengthened by drawing ministers solely from the Commons.  The second chamber would then have a purely legislative role and its members would not be ambitious to join the executive.

But an elected second chamber would certainly have more legitimacy than the current Lords and this would strengthen its hand when scrutinising legislation.   Fear among MPs that this would challenge the Commons rests on the flawed assumption that we do a great job in holding the Government to account.  In my experience, this is far from the truth.  If the red benches raise their game then the green benches would surely respond.  This exposes the real truth of the anti-reformers’ position – those who want to keep the House of Lords as it is are also content with a weak House of Commons.  The Commons has a supine relationship with the executive – we are the poodles now.

The second objection often cited is that the present House of Lords is some unique depository of national wisdom and expertise.  Frankly, I think this is drivel.  Walter Bagehot said “the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.”  I’ve done so many times and have seen some good speeches but also some remarkably ignorant contributions.  True, there are some people there who have been experts in their field.  But sometimes that expertise is out of date.  A narrow expertise doesn’t make someone an accomplished Parliamentarian.  A retired general would certainly make interesting points in a debate on Libya or Afghanistan.  But what of his views on green energy, or stem cell research, free schools or gay marriage?  My views can be tested in an election and are under constant review in between elections by my constituents and the media.  The range of views held by experts are not under the same scrutiny.

Members of both houses are legislators, not expert witnesses.  We have to vote on a huge range of subjects.  We are not short of expert witnesses – they appear before select committees and meet with individual MPs every day.  Further, why should experts fear an election?  There are many experts in the House of Commons.  Is the US Senate a bunch of dimwits?

So I do not accept that election is a bar to talent or expertise.  It is also an extraordinary conceit for any expert to believe themselves above democratic legitimacy.  I would like to see a British Senate that is entirely elected.  Senators should be elected by a proportional voting system and should represent the nations and regions of the UK.  They should also be able to stand for re-election, rather than the single 15 year terms proposed in the Coalition Government’s white paper.

Since 1911 we have had piecemeal reform that has diluted the hereditary element but built up a class of life peers many of whom are just as remote from the lives of the people for whom they legislate.   We have waited long enough for a second chamber constituted on a popular basis.  It is time to allow the people to choose the whole of their Parliament.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynda Phillips permalink
    June 28, 2011 8:27 pm

    Senate is rather a leap don’t you think. Just look at those that have come before and failed. Dismally and catestrophically. Especially if we are to believe the myth/legend of Sparta …

    My wish would be that the House of Lords be made to protect and nurture our united countries in a non political way. Wise and true…

  2. kenneth stephens permalink
    June 28, 2011 11:08 pm

    Absolutely and totally agree,at last someone has offered some clarity.

    • Clifton Jim permalink
      August 2, 2011 2:11 pm

      Clarity? Really? Personnally I’m disappointed that Stephen glosses over and fails to address the two main issues that a) the Commons will lose it’s ultimate trump card over the upper house by virtue of being elected and the other not (with all the potential for deadlock that brings – look at the US at the moment), and b) the lack of unique value having a second group of salaried generalists as per the Commons brings. I’m all for reform in a number of areas but at the moment I can see new problems the above suggestion will create but no solutions or new benefits. I think Stephen and his party need to think longer and harder before a shake up such as this – look at the mess the LD’s made of voting reform for example!

      • August 2, 2011 7:30 pm

        Jim – plenty of democracies have two chambers and don’t have gridlock. The current US scenario is more to do with the separation of powers between the Executive (Presidency) and Legislative (Congress) branches of the US Constitution. Our Ministers and legislators are fused within Parliament.
        Specifically on setting budgets – the 1911 Parliament Act makes it clear that the House of Commons is supreme in financial matters – the Lords cannot reject or amend any “money” Bills.
        Your point re voting reform is a fair one – the Yes campaign was a disgrace.

      • August 8, 2011 2:02 pm

        Clifton Jim – how long exactly do you think the Liberals, Social Democrats and now Liberal Democrats have been thinking about Lords reform? It’s about 100 years, as Stephen says. Is that not long enough? Without the Liberal Democrats, voting reform wouldn’t even be on the table. (And I say this as a Green who stopped supporting the Lib Dems post-2010.)

        I’m not so sure that the Lib Dems messed up voting reform all by themselves. I rather feel that Labour and Conservative parties, and the forces of conservatism within them, dictated too much of the campaign and the Lib Dems and the Yes campaign in general didn’t have the resources or expertise to respond. We hadn’t HAD a referendum for 30-odd years. Yes, the Yes campaign was pretty poor – but the Lib Dems were trying to sell a compromise to an electorate on the back of a huge surge in their unpopularity, and it needed the ENTIRE Labour party to get behind them. They didn’t. Hence, No won.

        If you’re criticising the Lib Dems for messing up voting reform because you’re a Conservative, that’s just silly, because the Tories were the ones who are constantly getting in the way of reform on this issue!

  3. mke preston permalink
    June 29, 2011 9:35 pm

    wow, good stuff Stephen….not hat David C would agree!

  4. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    July 3, 2011 3:24 pm

    I also agree this would be a great step forward, and how about throwing in a few “ordinary” people, those who do their 40 hours, struggle to pay the mortgage and bring up the kids, but who enjoy a few pints down the pub. Now that would be real progress!

  5. Barry Cash permalink
    July 29, 2011 7:17 pm

    Paul,
    I think you’re forgeting that Blair did introduce “people’s peers” but the only people selected weren’t very “ordinary”. For example they didn’t choose me! Lets hope the system chosen will allow those without lots of money influence to stand and we may get some ordinary lads & lasses elected.

  6. July 29, 2011 9:59 pm

    Totally disagree with you about the need- or not- for expertise. My ideal house of peers- not lords, let reform include a gender neutral word- would be elected from a list of people put forward by their peers, be they teachers, union members, members of a faith group, publicans, chemists, doctors community volunteers academics or lawyers.
    The peers would issue a list of the expertise currently represented so that people could judge for themselves where the gaps are.
    All peers would be required to be non party political.
    No peers could remain members of a party- their remit would be to serve the best interests of the electorate.
    The result would be a group of people nominated by people whose respect they had earned, elected by us all and acting impartially for us. They would be – inevitably- a pretty bright group of people so it is pretty reasonable to suppose that they would be at least as capable as any MP in assessing the usefulness or otherwise of a particular approach to something outside their main field of expertise, and their independence would allow them to speak out, unlike MPs often forced to toe an uncomfortable party line. When the issue touched on their area their expertise would be useful and not out of date as you assert, given that their term of office would be limited.
    They would serve no more than – say – 9 years -with a third standing down every three years so they would have no time to get corrupted by power or eroded by senility. They would not be allowed to take paid work outside of the house of peers of any sort.

  7. Mrs Danuta Kellett permalink
    July 29, 2011 11:48 pm

    In the other countries that i lived (mainly Poland and Germany) there was not so very much emphesis put on on the colour of the blood at that time, but when i came here, and wanted to come and visit, that was partly because of the fascination by the “rituals”. If they are to be guarded by the high percentage of the decisionmakers in Parliament, then I don’t know… but to ignore the tradition would be would be a bit sad. I remember that at the time when I lived in Germany Queen Sylvia became a queen and there was an enormouse sence of pride in the ordinary German folk that this had happened. I was born in Poland and I still wish it for Poland. How to do it is beyond my understanding. When I was there (in Poland), there was a strong longing to make Poland into a country that would be significant and what I remember the significance was comming from the upper class which was to me associated with the church and … the then “West” as this was where my Bible was printed.

  8. Mrs Danuta Kellett permalink
    July 29, 2011 11:54 pm

    In the other countries that i lived (mainly Poland and Germany) there was not so very much emphesis put on on the colour of the blood at that time, but when i came here, and wanted to come and visit to learn a job, that was partly because of the fascination by the “rituals”. If they are to be guarded by the high percentage of the decisionmakers in Parliament, then I don’t know… but to ignore the tradition would be would be a bit sad. I remember that at the time when I lived in Germany Queen Sylvia became a queen and there was an enormouse sence of pride in the ordinary German folk that this had happened. I was born in Poland and I still wish it for Poland. How to do it is beyond my understanding. When I was there (in Poland), there was a strong longing to make Poland into a country that would be significant and what I remember the significance was comming from the upper class which was to me associated with the church and … the then “West” as this was where my Bible was printed.

  9. Sue Doughty permalink
    January 28, 2012 4:06 pm

    Strong article full of sense about a modern democracy. Over the years I have changed my opinion on the need for elected/appointed expertise. Both the Lords and the Commons have, through the committee system access to people holding great, and just as importantly, up to date expertise. There is no reason why they can’t also call upon theological and also ethical expertise too.

    One benefit of the Lords not having to face the electorate is that they are freer to express an unpopular opinion but If they are elected for a single 10 year term (with perhaps elections of one third of the house to provide stability and continuity) this would really remove this as an issue.

    Reform is urgently needed. Other countries have a second chamber and a senate could well perfom that function without the need for ermine.

  10. Peter Heaney permalink
    January 28, 2012 6:03 pm

    Good for Stephen. It’s about time this country became a true democrac. Elections to the House of Commons are not, the House of Lords is not (no elections!!)

  11. iainhallam permalink
    April 21, 2012 12:11 am

    One of the benefits of the current House of Lords is that they don’t have to be populist or bow to big money for election campaigns, so for me the major problem of most of these proposals is that it leads to short-term thinking and a scramble to get re-elected every time the terms comes round. Result? Independent thought goes out of the window and the career politicians take over.

    • Peter Heaney permalink
      April 21, 2012 10:17 am

      Rubbish! How can we claim to be a democratically governed country if one of the two chambers is not elected in any way?

    • April 21, 2012 1:01 pm

      Iain – the draft Bill drawn up by the DPM does deal with your point by suggesting that the new Lords/Senators should be elected for one long (15 yrs) single term. But I personally degree with this – not much would be gained from electing someone if they known they will never have to face the voters again. A Fifteen Year Peer is only slightly better than a Life Peer and given the fact that many of the existing lot are appointed in their 50s or 60s it may be no better in practice…

      • April 21, 2012 7:55 pm

        I agree. It is rather obvious with some that they have never had to talk to electors

  12. June 27, 2012 5:46 pm

    I think it is disingenous to say you are against hereditary privilege and still support continuing survival of the monarchy. The Queen represents the top of the pyramid of hereditary privilige.

    • June 30, 2012 9:57 am

      I think they are separate issues. When the Queen dies I think there should be a debate on whether we should become a republic. But the Queen (or a future Charles III) does not have any meaningful role in law making. She just signs the Bills into Acts of Parliament. But the 92 hereditary peers do get to speak and vote on all Bills. This absurdity must end!

      • August 1, 2013 1:06 pm

        With the greatest of respect,I think it is a bit of a cop-out to say we should debate whether we should have a freely elected Head of State AFTER the current incumbent is deceased. Not in the least because we dont know when the transition will actually happen.

        Furthermore the Queen is involved in law making since she actually signs the bills into law. And she is in a position where she can choose sitting governments in the future event of parties being elected into the Commons without an outright controlling majority. That is considerable power, especially for someone who has got their position out of virtue of coming out of the right uterus.

        This government and others have admitted that by convention that the Royals are consulted on certain laws that effect their private interests before they are even put to a vote. Governments have stated that no laws have been scrapped on the basis of these consultations, but they have remained silent on whether they have been changed. Perhaps next time my private interests get effected I can get similar special treatment?

        And last but not least there is the issue of the royal veto which the government have used to get rid of certain laws they do not wish to see succeed. The veto so far has only been used on the advice of the government. But this in itself puts power (of debatable scale perhaps) in the hands of the sitting monarch. Surely it would be far more democratic to have this responsibility bestowed on an elected presidency.

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