House of Lords reform: taking a look at the details

Yesterday Nick Clegg unveiled the Government’s proposals for reforming the House of Lords, an idea that David Cameron is on record as fully backing.

The mere idea of introducing elections for half of our Parliament is shocking enough for some (letting the public decide who rules them? what a radical idea) that the details have understandably so far got relatively little attention.

So what are the highlights of them?

First, the Lords will be small – 300. That makes sense given how enormous the combined number of MPs and Lords is in Britain at the moment compared with other democracies (see this chart from the Economist which shows how Britain has far fewer people per Parliamentarian than any of the other countries in the survey).

Second, STV (yes, STV) is proposed as the electoral system. The small size of the Lords means that STV can be used without having to get into the sorts of huge numbers of candidates on ballot papers that you see in federal party committee elections. The experience of drawing up constituencies boundaries for the London Assembly (also much larger than Westminster constituencies, though for other reasons) also suggests that the constituencies can be drawn up fairly quickly and easily.

Third, the plan is for elections by thirds, coinciding with general elections. This minimises the cost of Lords elections and maximises turnout, which are good motivations, but it comes with two other knock-on effects: more votes for minor parties and the possible collapse of election expense controls unless there is major reform.

House of Lords. Photo: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of ParliamentFourth, the argument over 80% elected versus 100% elected has yet to be settled, though the proposals in effect defaults to an 80% option. Either way, it is also proposed that a reduced number of Bishops (and only Bishops; i.e. not including other religions) continue to sit as ‘ex officio’ members. In other words, there are some strong Conservative voices for special provision for the established Church, and Liberal Democrats in government have taken the view that a compromise on this point is worthwhile in order to get Lords reform.

Fifth, the proposals are for people to be elected for 15 year terms and then banned from standing again. I’m dubious about the virtue of this given how often at election time people want to cast a verdict on how politicians have behaved in the past and one term only means, once elected, there’s an awful lot of leeway to be indolent without any comeback. But being elected in the first place is itself a major step forward.

There are plenty of other details in the proposals, which you can read in full below, though my eye was caught by this:

Members of the House of Lords would continue to be deemed resident, ordinarily resident and domiciled (ROD) for tax purposes.

You could call that the Ashcroft Triple Lock.

Overall these plans are good – and it’s worth remembering how badly wrong Lords reformers got it in the 1960s by opposing reforms because they though better ones would come along. The subsequent 50 years showed that to be an stupendously misplaced view.

Less good is David Steel’s actions yesterday. Though Liberal Party leader through many years when the Liberal Party wanted elections for the Lords, he joined joined a cross-party group opposing any elections for the Lords. He’s wrong. It’s as simple as that.

House of Lords Reform Draft Bill

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  • Not sure about 15 year terms. It goes against some of the arguments raised when considering safe MP seats. I would rather it was the same term as MP’s. The supremacy issue shouldn’t come up. Any reform Bill can ensure the issue is settled fromt he outset. The parliament act allows the Lords to be overuled, but aproportional chamber (especially if elected at the same time as MP’s) would have the mandate to make the commons think again as well as simply being a revising chamber.

    Not sure about Bishops either (and I’m an active member of the CofE). I would like to see the 20% made up of ex-officio members who bring knowledge and expertise outside of the political parties. I would however like to see then being able to propose amendments but not vote on them. This would allow representatives from education (say ex-head teacher or vice chancellor), religions, science etc. to be able to contribute to good laws without being able to affect the outcome of a vote directly. I have always felt this to be a solution that keeps knowledge int eh house but meets my democratic principles.

  • Weren’t 15 year terms and elections by thirds in the 2007 white paper? I think the elections were planned to coincide with the European elections as these are at fixed five year intervals. I seem to recall these were all accepted by the HoC then (but never got through the Lords) with support from all party leaders, including Cameron.

    The problem is that the reform will not happen under this government. The proposals are already five months late and the next step is for a group to sit down and talk about them for a year. Even if a bill is presented, Cameron will not be able to whip many of his party to support them – and as they are watered down from a fully elected chamber, Labour will have an excuse not to support them either. Then they will have to get them through the Lords – and the Parliament Act (even if they try to use it, which I doubt) is likely to be subject to legal challenge.

  • My single biggest objection to this bill is the right of those whose only qualification is a specific world view unchallenged positions in the upper house.

    Especially now that the latest social attitudes survey shows religion to have become a minority (49%) view in the population, I think it’s entirely wrong to give religious “leaders” a free ride in what we laughingly call a democracy. I believe the only other country in the world where this happens is Iran; is that really we consider a “modern” upper house?

    I have nothing against bishops, (or rabbis, imans, etc) sitting in our future upper house, I believe though that they should stand for election and get voted in like everyone else should be.

  • John Richardson 18th May '11 - 9:30am

    That makes sense given how enormous the combined number of MPs and Lords is in Britain at the moment compared with other democracies (see this chart from the Economist which shows how Britain has far fewer people per Parliamentarian than any of the other countries in the survey).

    You must be joking, Mark. Most of the countries in that list can not be described as modern democracies by any stretch of the imagination. In the cases of, say, the United States and Germany the representation at national level must be put in the context of powerful sub-national legislatures. Our system is highly centralised and monolithic. Less so in Scotland and Wales but in England certainly.

    If you start to compare with other centralised modern democracies parliament doesn’t look quite so overcrowded. UK 1 legislator per 40,000 (a whopping 55% of which are unelected!) the reforms will take us to 1 legislator per 66,000 (7% unelected), Sweden 1 legislator per 25,000 (all elected), France 1 legislator per 75,000 (all elected), Ireland 1 legislator per 20,000 (25% semi-elected) .

    In the face of the entrenchment of FPTP in the Commons, leaving the majority of people in this country unrepresented for the forseeable future, I don’t think reducing the number of legislators and thereby further concentrating the exercise of power can be considered a Good Thing.

  • 15-year terms and no re-elections are bad, I’d prefer 7 or 10 year terms with a possibility of two or one (respectively) re-elections myself. Otherwise okay, a very good compromise and I’m glad that crossbenchers were thought of!

  • We should probably cut the numbers of MPs to about 300 as well…

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th May '11 - 9:56am

    Although I am a strong supporter of STV for elections to most democratic chambers, I feel there is a strong case for using a list system for the second chamber.

    The reason for this is that the list system combines the democratic mandate with the idea there is some good in people being nominated rather than directly elected. The nomination aspect comes about because the list system uses nominations to the list. Parties in putting together their lists could and should choose to include in those lists experts and the like who they think should be in Parliament but who would find it hard to get there through the rough-and-tumble of straight public elections.

    If elections to the Lords were done using a list system, the lists could consist of those members of the Lords already who take the party whip. If the hereditary peers and bishops want to put together lists, they would be free to do so, and those who value the presence of such people would be free to show how much they value it by voting for those lists.

    A House of Lords which is fully elected using a list system with the lists drawn up as suggested above would look very similar to the present House of Lords, which is all to the good – experience with the AV referendum suggests it is best to downplay rather than upplay the nature of the reforms – I think AV would have got a much higher “Yes” vote if the “Yes” campaign had not exaggerated its effects and had instead painted it as a fairly minor reform which just correct a little anomaly in FPTP.

    The principle of packing the Lords to reflect the balance of party support in public elections has already been established by David Cameron with the large number of peers he has had created for this reason. So any Conservatives who reject the idea of a Lords elected by a list system ought to be asked therefore to reject Cameron achieving the same thing by appointment. If appointment is to be purely by merit, then no attention should be made in doing it to party balance.

  • I think fifteen is too much. I would’ve done four years, renewable three times, as midterms (Y0 Commons, Y1 Scotland/Wales/London/NI, Y2 Lords, Y3 Councils and Mayors), or even eight, renewable once.

    Still, glad to see STV isn’t dead.

  • Dinti Batstone 18th May '11 - 1:48pm

    Readers of this post may be interested in the discussion on gender balance here:

  • toryboysnevergrowup 18th May '11 - 11:16pm

    These proposals will not be enacted in this Parliament and neither should they. They will lead to several major changes in how our democracy operates and the details need to be put before the electorate at a General Election or a referendum so that they have some democratic legitimacy. If the Welsh can have a referendum on a small extension of the powers of their Assembly I can see no reason whatsoever that these proposals which are likely to have a greater constitutional impact shouldn’t be put before the electorate. Yes, all the Parties at the last GE agreed that there should be varying degrees of direct election for the Lords (but even then I think we should have a say as to whether we want 20% unelected/appointed and 12 Anglican bishops – I don’t remember much debate on this point at the General Election), but there are other matters where there is no scrutiny before the electorate whatsoever.

    When did we agree to 15 year terms, we’ve already in effect extended the House of Commons term from 4 to 5 years – and I fail to see how electing someone for 15 years can be seen as promoting democratic accountability – don’t worry we can vote you out in 15 years time will really keep them on their toes won’t it. Remember all the Chartist arguments for annual parliaments – they are still valid in this case.

    When did we agree that the elections should be by STV? I can understand that LibDems may think that they know best about electoral methods and really don’t want to bother with the awkward task of putting their arguments to the electorate – but they forget that the electoral system belongs to the electorate not the LibDems. I don’t see overwhelming popularity for STV with the Euro Elections and anyway that system came as part of the package in signing up to the EU on which we did have a referendum.

    The electorate have also had no chance to express its views on what should be the powers of the 2nd chamber and what shouldn’t. All we are being offered is the status quo re functions and the Parliament Act , surely there has to be some change if only because those elected will have a different franchise and mandate from the present incumbents? Should the blocking mechanism of the Parliament Act really continue to be available with all its associated gentlemans agreements on its use. Are we really happy with the current stated functions are being performed – scrutiny of legislation? If so why do we have so much poorly drafted legislation?

    Yes, all progressives want a democratic 2nd House – but what will happen is that this will go down in flames and then the Tories hope that after the next election they will be able to do what they want on their terms. Clegg has yet again been thoroughly out manoeuvred by Flashman and co. A far better route would be similar to that employed for Scotland for the Assembly where a constitutional commission developed a set of detailed proposals about how the Assembly would be elected and worked and these were then put before the electorate as part of the Referendum. It might also be possible to develop a number of different models, which would possibly shame the Tories into supporting something that wasn’t too undemocratic, which could then be put before the election in a referendum/general election.

    On the other hand Clegg could just carry on driving his new ship onto the iceberg, just as he did with AV.

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