Opinion: Stuffing the House of Lords or reforming it?

Last week’s announcement of new peers didn’t seem much like a “new way of doing politics”. On the Tory side, wealthy party donors were rewarded for their largess. On our own side, just two of the nine appointments were of people directly elected to the interim peers list, three owed their place on that list to being ex-MPs and four had not come from the interim peers list at all – so much for party democracy!

The statement in the coalition deal that “Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last General Election” has been met with alarm by many Lib Dem Voice readers, worried that it will just give the Government an excuse for packing the upper house with its own supporters. Responding to this, Nick Clegg stated that he wanted to “reform the House of Lords not stuff it” (19th May). We must hold him to his word.

I plan to put a motion to the Autumn Conference aimed at ensuring that any future Lords appointees are first elected by the party as a whole. This could be done on the same regional list basis as that used to choose our Euro candidates, and would completely replace the existing “interim peers list”.

The arguments in favour of this approach can be summarised as follows:

1) I am sure that once we have an elected upper house we will use internal elections to select candidates (just as we do for Euro elections),so we should start doing so now.
2) If we don’t use internal elections at this stage, then those appointed now will become entrenched and have a considerable advantage over any challengers in later, internal elections.
3) Appointments by the leadership, guided by the interim peers list, were suited to an era when only a handful of Lib Dem peers would be created at a time. However, as it could take up to 95 new peers to re-balance the Lords this system is no longer “fit for purpose”.
4) The Government appointing hundreds of new parliamentarians to make sure that it can get its legislative programme through looks like “control freakery”. As liberals we should resist that in governments of any political colour.

These are very much preliminary thoughts, please let me know your views. I would also welcome help in preparing this motion – this is important for our democracy and we must get it right.

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13 Comments

  • Andrea Gill 3rd Jun '10 - 10:28am

    Well it looks like we’ll get something before the end of the year: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/jun/02/david-cameron-pmqs-lords-reform

  • The two people not on the peers list were pretty impressive though. Surely we should be delighted to have a former DPP wanting to sit on our benches.

    I used to think that the peers list was a good idea and there are certainly some excellent people on the list and some good peers who have come from it. People like Ros Scott, David Shutt and Tony Greaves. However the actual process of electing the peers list will mean we can’t move at conference without being harrassed by people who want to get on the list for the off chance of getting their own ermine robe.

  • paul barker 3rd Jun '10 - 11:16am

    1st, this is innacurate since there are 2 lots of Interim Lists to choose from, 2nd the idea of making Lords appointments proportional is long-term, meant to run alongside the reform process. There is, as far as I know no proposal to make any more Peers this year.

  • @Tim Starkey

    Here’s a question: why are we committed to a bicameral legislature?

    Now I’m not saying that we should definitely get rid of the second chamber, I just want to know if it is truly necessary. I suggest that we liberate the executive from the legislature through direct elections for Prime Minister. The elecotrate has been steadily dining on presidential elections without the benefit of a more presidential government system. Lets give them what they want, allow them to vote for PM. This would have a number of effects: 1) The PM could draw from the best people available to her rather than the narrow pool of parliament, since the premier does not derive authority from parliament 2) the PM’s authority would be derived directly from the electorate, removing the whole Gordon Brown Factor where an unelected party leader can take over the premiership 3) It could give more power to the house of commons, to its select committees, etc liberating it and making it a better check on government 4) splitting the vote for your MP and you PM would allow more nuanced voting intentions to be articulated through the ballot box.

    If we did this, then wouldn’t a second chamber, however constituted, simply be duplication? The problem becomes even worse if we democratise the house of lords as it would now have a mandate and its incumbents could demand greater powers to reflect their legitimacy.

    Just a thought.

  • Tim Starkey 3rd Jun '10 - 1:34pm

    Paul Barker – Firstly, yes there are 2 interim peers lists (both with 30 names on) elected in 2006 and 2008. Talking about them as the “interim peers list” rather than the “interim peers lists” makes no difference to any of the arguments.

    Secondly, you write: “The idea of making Lords appointments proportional is long-term, meant to run alongside the reform process.”
    This is not what the coalition agreement says. It talks about the need to create a committee to “bring forward proposals for a wholly or mostly elected second chamber”, with a draft motion by December 2010, but then goes on to say:

    “In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last General Election”

    I’d don’t see the need for this. All 3 parties and many cross benchers are committed to HOL reform – it is not neccessary to “stuff” the Lords to achieve this. I’d rather the government just got on with reforming the Lords quickly! Creating hundreds of new peers in the meantime could have an element of control freakery to it!

    @mpg

    I’m very interested by your ideas on this – but don’t have time right now to properly consider and respond to them!

  • Antony Hook 3rd Jun '10 - 2:57pm

    Mark,

    Ultimately if the will of the party is that Lords nominees should be selected by the party and if that will is ignored then short of sacking the Leader, I suppose Conference and the other organs of the party outside Parliament could refuse to recognise illegitimate peers as Liberal Democrats?

  • @mpg

    Directly electing the prime minister has a lot to recommend it. It would allow you to combine the merits of proportional representations in the Commons with a strong, single party government. I think to reduce the likelihood of deadlock it would be best to synchronise the prime ministerial and parliamentary elections, and to give PM the power to dissolve parliament in a stalemate.

    We need greater separation between the executive and the legislature. The Commons has become nothing more than an electoral college for the Prime Minister, and a rubber stamp for his decisions. This is inevitable in a parliamentary system in which the PM must enjoy the confidence of the Commons, and won’t be fixed by piecemeal reform.

    However I don’t think a directly elected PM is likely to happen. So the best alternative is a directly elected upper house, with stronger powers. It should have a veto over everything except the choice of PM and perhaps money bills. It should also be able to establish US-style investigative committees, that can subpoena documents and witnesses.

    An elected Senate can be the independent legislative branch that is missing in British democracy.

  • (Btw, I agree with you that if there’s a directly elected PM then parliament should be unicameral.)

  • Antony Hook 3rd Jun '10 - 9:09pm

    Mark,

    I think a peer (or MP or any office holder) “sitting as a Liberal Democrat” but not being recognised by the party as an offical Liberal Democrat would be /something/ of a sanction. And I think it would have to follow that they would not be a party members any longer. I can’t see any Leader continuing to appoint whoever (s)he pleases if that happened.

    I’m not saying it is something we should do, I just wished to make the point that there are sanctions other than going as far as sacking the Leader!

    One your other points-

    Aren’t there women and BME people on the Interim Peers List?

    You’re right about Ken MacDonald. The DPP is a Civil Servant classed as equivalent to a Permanent Secretary and barred from party politics. But if we refresh the list every few years, as has been done, doesn’t that solve that problem? People can wait a couple of years until they can put themselves forward. Is it too much to ask someone with a real commitment to liberal values?

    I feel extremely strongly that by appointing Peers at the Leader’s whim we are lending legitimacy to this corrupt patronage based system of unaccountable law makers.

  • A HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM PROPOSAL

    The chief aim of my proposals is to make a transition to a different form of second chamber, on the threefold principle that:

    a) Such a transition needs to be a reasonably painless, evolutionary process.

    b) Such a transition needs to produce a more effective, ‘slim-line’ revising chamber.

    c) Such a transition needs to produce a chamber which contains a more interesting and varied mix of members.

    Taking these three principles together, we need to take steps which will, so to speak, throw out the bath-water, but not the baby … and, to stretch the analogy a little, create space for some fresh water, too:

    Step One:
    Retain current arrangements for Hereditaries and Bishops. Automatically grant a life-peerage to all members of the supreme court ; who become entitled to sit in the Lords (as ‘Law Lords’) upon their retirement from the court.

    Step Two:
    A Bill placing a limit on the total number of peers there can be (whether sitting in the Lords or not), at any one time. I suggest 1750 people.

    Step Three:
    The Life Peers to select 25% of their numbers to sit in the Lords (the remaining ‘pool’ of Life Peers could, like the pool of Hereditaries, be voted back into the chamber, upon the death of a sitting Life Peer).

    Step Four:
    100 New Category Peers, selected entirely at random, maybe by a form of national lottery, phased in 20 per year. Replaced one at a time, on the death of one of their number.

    Democracy is good, but so also is a link with our history as a nation (which the already much-depleted ‘Lords Spiritual’ help to provide). Our main focus should be on the house continuing to do what it does best, and strengthening and improving upon those things. There is no public clamour now for the complete removal of the Hereditaries. It is the number of Life Peers which is becoming unwieldy. Meanwhile, the introduction of Random ‘Jury’ Peers would be a simple and direct way of engaging the general public in parliamentary business.

    It would be good to get a bit more ‘randomism’ in public life. What a delightful thing it would be, and what a boost to public interest in politics, if, say, the local bin-man was suddenly ennobled, under my system. Certainly, the presence of these ‘Jury Peers’ would go a long way to making the ‘feel’ of the second chamber much less elitist.

    For clarity, a Lords ‘Lottery Winner’ would have so many days (I’m open to suggestions on how many) to accept, in writing, the offer of a seat. Obviously, those who were going to find it too disruptive to their lives would most likely not bother to respond, which would be taken as declining the offer ~ with the offer passed on to the next on the list.

    New entrants of this sort could well be over-awed to begin with, but I think they would soon get into the swing of things … and before long, they would find themselves mentoring the next batch of entrants.

    The possibility of dangerous/criminal/extreme types getting in there should be covered by clear proceedural rules in the house, and the law of the land, as and when any problems arise. I wouldn’t want there to be any pre-vetting as such, because the virtue of the random intake is it’s potential to bring forward some real free thinkers. This free thinking is enshrined by life-long occupation of the seat.

    The opt-out that I mentioned earlier assumes that those who take their seats will want to participate. However, it does not ask anyone in advance about whether they would want to get involved, due to the old adage of ‘those who seek power shouldn’t be given it’. Thus random allocation comes as more of a pleasant surprise.

    A sufficient (though not extravagant) salary would also need to be agreed upon, so that poorer people are not immediately put off … but this again is a detail to be discussed. My hope is that the ‘Jury Peers’ would come into their own, over time, as guardians of the constitution, of basic liberties, and of common standards of decency … They would begin as absolute beginners, and end their lives as national treasures.

    Some idle musings now on what the approximate ‘shape’ (using slightly out-dated wikipedia figures!) of The Lords would be, following my slimming down of the number of Life Peers ~

    Conservative: 83 (35 Life, 48 Hereditary)
    Cross: 71 (38 L, 33 H)
    Labour: 54 (52 L, 2 H)
    Lib Dems: 22 (17 L, 5 H)
    UKIP: 2 (1 L, 1 H)

    Significantly, the current (2010) Coalition Government gets a much better ‘showing’ here ~ but by a process of reduction, rather than addition.

    Total: 232 (117 for majority vote, currently Cons plus Lib Dems = 105; which means support also needed from 12 cross-benchers).

    Party Percentages:
    Conservative: 35.8%
    Cross: 30.6%
    Labour: 23.3%
    Lib Dems: 9.5%
    UKIP: 0.9%

    [Comparison To Commons:]
    [Conservative: 46.9%]
    [Labour: 39.7%]
    [Lib Dems: 8.8%]
    [Others: 4.6 %]

    First Intake Of Random (‘Jury’) Peers: 20
    Bishops: 25
    Law Lords: 22

    Total added on: 69

    Total Life Peers: 143
    Total Hereditary Peers: 91 (1 replacement pending)

    Total House: 301

    % Life Peers: 47.5 %
    % Hereditary: 30.2 %
    % First Intake Jury: 6.6 %
    % Bishops: 8.3 %
    % Law: 7.3 %

    In Sweden, a ‘Council on Legislation’ considers:

    1. the manner in which the draft law relates to the fundamental laws (i.e. Sweden’s written and entrenched Constitution) and the legal system in general;

    2. the manner in which the different provisions of the draft law relate to one another;

    3. the manner in which the draft law relates to the requirements of the rule of law;

    4. whether the draft law is so framed that the resulting act of law may be expected to satisfy the stated purposes of the proposed law;

    5. what problems are likely to arise in applying the act of law.

    I think all of those considerations could be usefully discussed by the Law Lords (and other peers with a legal background).
    I think it unlikely that the Law Lords would want to do much voting in the divisions ~ this could be something for a Lords committee to keep an eye on.
    I would also like to see a gradual movement towards one written constitution; which could incorporate those five key points.

    Upon the completion of a written constitution, I would want any future alterations to that constitution to require the consent of both houses (maybe at a higher threshold than 50% plus 1).

    On a final side point, it might be healthy to introduce a check-and-balance to the hereditary monarchy, by requiring the next in line to the throne to secure the approval of both houses, before becoming Head Of State. In the (highly unlikely) event of this approval not being granted, the next person along in line to the throne would go forward in the same way.

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