Lords reform one year on

A year on from a House of Commons vote on Lords Reform, we asked Baroness Ros Scott about the prospect of the Commons getting its way.

When I was asked about going to the Lords, I was warned that I might not be there for long.  That was 8 years ago, and I’m not convinced that we’re much nearer to reforming the Lords than we were then.

There is a general consensus in the Commons that something needs to be done to democratise the second chamber, but a range of views about exactly what that should be.  Voting on the Cunningham report reflected that range, and resulted in a failure to gain a majority for any one of the six proposals on offer.   Last year’s vote at least progressed to a clear majority for a predominantly elected House, but legislation remains a distant prospect.

My views on the Lords have changed over time.   Until I got there, I was broadly in favour of an elected second chamber as a matter of principle.  I never felt moved to man the barricades on the issue, largely because the actual power of the Lords is so limited.   Working in the Lords, I have rather come to admire the way it works, the genuine expertise which resides there, and the fact that it usually avoids the more undesirable aspects of political point scoring.

But the “cash for peerages” allegations have hardened my views on the need for reform. I believe now that nothing short of a complete move to an elected Chamber can restore the credibility of the Lords.

And a credible second chamber is needed more now than ever before.  It is clear that the Commons is even further away from real change than the Lords.  An unrepresentative voting system, supine backbenchers and the power of government business managers means that the Commons is unable to hold the Executive to account.  It is not uncommon for Bills to arrive from the Commons with as much 40% of the content unscrutinised, because of the way the government whips manage the business.

Whilst that situation exists, a strong second chamber, with a public mandate, untainted by suspicion of corrupt appointment is a necessity.

And it is for that reason that I don’t think full reform will happen anytime soon.   I’m not sure that any government really wants a second chamber willing and able to flex its muscles.  Ensuring that the Lords remains partly appointed will be government’s way of clipping its wings.

My guess is that initial reform will remove the Bishops and the remaining hereditary peers.   A sort of voluntary retirement scheme will be offered, with a modest financial settlement based on past attendance.    This would clear some capacity for the election of a tranche of “senators” on a regional list basis, for a term of 12 (or 15) years non-renewable.

Five years later, the grim reaper will have  created space for a second elected list, and so on until we have a second chamber which around 80% elected.  The other 20% will be non political appointees.

The challenge for Liberal Democrat parliamentarians will be how much of a future programme for reform we can support.  Purists will urge rejection of everything short of a totally elected house, pragmatists will urge us to take any steps which move us closer to our ultimate goal.

Ros Scott speaks is a front-bench Lib Dem peer covering the  local government portfolio. Her website is here and her blog here.

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This entry was posted in News and Parliament.
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