Proposals for a Federal Upper House

Our party is committed to numerous constitutional reforms intended to better represent the people in Government and Parliament. A comprehensive and interconnected constitutional reform programme is needed now more than ever, given the damage inflicted by the Conservatives upon our Union and constitutional norms, and the prospect of Labour their own plan this month. Therefore, we should consider developing and reconciling our plans to House of Lords reforms and establishing ‘a strong, federal and united United Kingdom.’

A Senate of Regions would be preferable to the current Lords, over-representative of London, the South-East and the East of England and including members owing their positions to political favouritism or quid pro quos rooted in party donations. However, a fully and directly elected upper house may not be popular. The deliberative role of the current Lords will likely be undermined if all its members were forever bearing in mind re-election prospects. And, with sixty per cent of respondents in one survey believing that the Lords already had too many politicians, support may be found lacking for the establishment of an all-politician chamber incurring the same gridlock that plagues the US Congress. That is why we should consider reforming the Lords into a hybrid chamber, reduced in size to 300 members (for reasons that will become apparent later).

Directly-elected peers, constituting sixty out of 300 members, should serve as the political leaders of the house, and the agents of the parties represented in the Commons. Caveats should include:

  • Requirement of prior service as an MP, devolved assembly member or local councillor, to bar entry to neophytes and party donors. Sadly, as long as Britain is outside of the European Union, MEPs should not be included, if only to prohibit provenly disruptive populists from entering the UK’s deliberative chamber by exploiting their passing participation in institutions they sought to undermine and banish Britain from.
  • Term limits of two or three five-year terms (this may require the introduction of Swedish-style fixed-term Parliaments).
  • Election via closed party list system to ensure that conduct is not impeded by any personal imperative to win re-election.
  • Membership of a political party with at least one MP to ensure that they are serving as the executors of the legislative intentions of the Commons; representatives of political parties without seats in the Commons and independents would not be permitted to contest these seats.

Whilst our federalism policy intends to address asymmetrical devolution, it may only go so far to redress regional alienation from Westminster exacerbated under the Conservatives. One way of creating a pull factor in the relationship between Westminster and the devolved assemblies would be for the latter to indirectly elect peers based on merit or expertise, constituting 180 of the 300 members. Several caveats should include:

  • The creation of Lords Appointments committees in every regional assembly to consider applications for positions in the Lords.
  • The required approval of candidates by two-thirds majorities to assure that they are broadly agreeable.
  • That these indirectly elected Lords serve a single non-renewable term, either lasting fifteen years or until the individual reaches a statutory retirement age of eighty.
  • The prohibition of current or former holders of elected office from entering the Lords via this route.
  • The proscription of the transfer of this power to the executive branch, especially as a special power of a First Minister.

And finally, some hereditary peers and Lords Spiritual – sixty in total – should be retained to deter any obstructionist opposition to Lords reform on traditionalist grounds, and to prevent any constitutional difficulties such as those associated with compromising the Crown’s role as Defender of the Faith.

As upper houses in federal systems typically award equal representation to states, regions, or provinces regardless of population size, the geographic distribution of seats may be a sticking point. Whether allotting Lords seats to the four Home Nation or the twelve regions, there will be contention over which method is used. Earlier, 300 was suggested as an ideal membership total in a downsized reformed Lords. As such, these would be how seats would be distributed depending on which model was used.

  • 60 directly-elected Lords, meaning 15 per Home Nation, or 5 per region.
  • 180 indirectly-elected Lords, meaning 45 per Home Nation, or 15 per region.
  • 48 hereditary peers, meaning 12 per Home Nation, or 2 per region.
  • 12 Lords Spiritual, regardless of how members are allotted.

While these proposals may seem byzantine, we need a comprehensive plan for constitutional reform, one that will endeavour to resolve the problems of this country’s constitutional arrangement without creating new ones, and, at the very least, antagonise as few people as possible.

* Samuel James Jackson has been a grassroots member of the Liberal Democrats, affiliated with the Calderdale branch, since 2017, and is currently studying at the University of Leeds for a Master’s degree in History.

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24 Comments

  • Mark Morrison 26th Sep '22 - 11:16am

    Interesting ideas but a few observations. Firstly, we need to get rid of the idea of retaining places for hereditary peers once and for all. Secondly, each country of the UK should have equal representation in a Senate designed to emphasise a Union of equals. Thirdly, parties with representation in national parliaments should be entitled to seek membership of the Senate – not just those with MPs in the House of Commons. (Otherwise the Scottish Green Party, with more MSPs than the Scottish Liberal Democrats would be excluded.)

  • David Warren 26th Sep '22 - 11:29am

    There is a lot of good stuff here. However my proposal would be for an Upper House of 450 with 80% elected 20% appointed.

    The 360 elected members would come from the 12 regions with 30 from each regardless of size. The 90 appointed members would include existing faith representatives, the balance being independents/ crossbenchers chosen by a special appointments commission. The remaining heredatories would be removed.

    I am relaxed about what electoral system but of course it would have to be a version of PR. I would have a term limit of 15 years.

  • Chris Moore 26th Sep '22 - 1:11pm

    Hopelessly complicated. Inexplicable to the electorate.

    Not only Byzantine, but also a vote-loser.

  • YeovilYokel 26th Sep '22 - 1:29pm

    I, too, am in favour of a hybrid chamber, neither wholly appointed nor wholly elected, though with a bias towards elected members to give it greater legitimacy. There are some terrible people currently in the Lords but some excellent ones too, so we need to ensure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Perhaps we should take our cue from the best examples overseas, and alter the chosen model to suit our particular circumstances.

    You’ve done the party a service by posting this, Samuel, thank you.

  • Tristan Ward 26th Sep '22 - 2:17pm

    I am not a fan of an elected House of Lords. We have an elected chamber and look at it: I am not at all sure we need another provided the House of Commons is pre-eminant – which it righly is.

    We do need a structure that retains the expertise and independence of the political melee of the current system. It will be hard to achieved if “reformwd” actually means “elected”.

    I suspect a second elected chamber would be a step backwards in terms of getting better, properly scrutised laws as opposed to those that are just whipped through.

    I do like the idea of guaranteeing Lords spiritual, and I would enclose the Head Rabbi and equivalent to for other non- Christian faiths (including humanism) as an matter of course, as well as some bishops

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Sep '22 - 3:30pm

    Shouldn’t we be making clear what we believe a reformed HoL should actually be doing before discussing who could be a member of it?

    It seems to me that the reasons for needing a reformed HoL should be a major factor in deciding how it should be made up i.e. what sort of people might be qualified (elected or appointed) to be members. Until we make clear what the role of a reformed HoL should be how can we get on to who might be suitably qualified to be a member?

  • Mick Taylor 26th Sep '22 - 3:53pm

    I think there nothing wrong with the role of the HoL in scrutinising legislation, what’s wrong is it’s composition and the patronage that goes with it. I think an 80/20 split is about right, so I agree with Dave Warren on that. I also agree with a maximum term 2 or 3 terms would be fine. Complicated? I don’t think so. 80% elected by PR from the regions and nations, what’s hopelessly complicated about that?

  • Paul Barker 26th Sep '22 - 3:54pm

    After the next Election we are not going to be The Government. We may be a Junior partner in a Labour – led Coalition. We should be thinking in terms of General Principles as they relate to the proposals that Labour are developing. Lets not get caught in a thicket of details.

  • Too complex. Keep it simple.
    Abolish the House of Lords and have a parliament for England, like Scotland and Wales do.
    It could sub-divide into regions later, if there was demand.

  • Julian Tisi 26th Sep '22 - 4:53pm

    I have a few disagreements with the OP. First – democracy: we must surely continue to support the concept of an elected HOL (or at least the vast majority must be elected) – this is a simple matter of democratic principle. Second – democracy again: what is the legitimacy for treating all nations as somehow “equal” in representation, despite the huge obvious differences in population? England – a good 3/4 of the UK population – would be represented by only 1/4 of the Lords under this plan. Third – complexity: as others have said, this is a complex sell and it’s not clear what overall principle the OP is trying to follow (is it to represent regions? or nations? but within the context of broadly retaining the HOL as it is?)

    Most people seem to support the idea that the HOL should remain a scrutinizing body and perhaps that would lend itself towards having longer terms and inviting members from across the political spectrum, including perhaps some non-political aligned members with particular experience or expertise. For this reason I think STV would work particularly well, but with constituencies electing say 5 members, not regionally.

  • Paul Barker 26th Sep '22 - 6:18pm

    FYI Labour conference has just passed a motion calling for a change to Proportional Representation, this is a big step forward but conference does not decide policy & Starmer has said that PR is “not a priority” for him.
    The best way to get Reform is still to elect as many Libdems MPs as we can.

  • Yes, Julian Tisi, the Single Transferable Vote method of Proportional Representation may well work particularly well for a reformed House of Lords/Senate. I speak as someone who is fully in favour of PR and as a person who has wanted it ever since I first witnessed a disgracefully unfair election result in 1983 but also someone who has quite a few reservations about that particular form of PR. To my mind, a more party centered version of PR such as the open party list system with levelling seats of Denmark or an improved version of Germany’s Mixed-Member PR with open as opposed to their closed regional party lists are my favoured systems for the more party political orientated lower house of the House of Commons.

    The revising chamber of the House of Lords/new Senate would suit STV as it is a system more focused upon the election of individuals and not parties. As this is the case STV would lend itself towards Independents being elected to the revising chamber. A revising chamber with many independents is quite a desirable outcome and STV would help to achieve that.

  • Jenny Barnes 27th Sep '22 - 9:25am

    Clearly the HoL is far too big, and undemocratic. It’s function seems ok – revision and delay, especially of policies not in the manifesto. I suggest the following:
    Each new potential appointment to HoL requires 2 existing members to leave. Target – say – 200 members.
    Nominations for the new appointment could be from all sorts of groups, obviously including political parties.
    Elections would be each May, coincident with local elections, and on a UK wide franchise. Those with the most votes get to be elected, in order, and the remainder would need to be renominated to compete again.
    Election would be either for life or a very long term – 25 years?
    I think such a chamber would be able to take long term views, but critically without seriously competing with the HoC for political primacy.

  • william wallace 27th Sep '22 - 10:24am

    We need a 2nd chamber to scrutinise legislation and ministerial instruments (SIs), since the Commons spends so little time on these. The Liberal Democrats during the coalition put forward a scheme for a reformed 2nd chamber, elected regionally, 1/3rd every 5 years for 15-year terms with no right to stand again – to provide both electoral legitimacy and independence when elected. 20% for cross-benchers would be acceptable; indirect election would be an alternative, but hard to sell to the public when local government in England is so weak.

  • Peter Parsons 27th Sep '22 - 10:57am

    Two of the arguments I often hear advanced for the retention of FPTP are the constituency link and voting for an individual, not a party. A benefit of STV is that both of these are as inherent a part of STV as they are of FPTP, so that instantly wipes out two arguments for not changing.

  • Alison Willott 27th Sep '22 - 12:12pm

    An advantage of the HoL is that it is NOT elected. When a position is to be elected, you get a certain type of person standing for election: someone who doesn’t mind engaging in political argument, in knocking on doors, in standing on platforms, in being heckled. Someone with a tough skin who can put up with abuse and vitriol. These qualities, while good, do not necessarily make a great statesman (or stateswoman). Platform charisma can lead to unsuitable people being elected, can’t it….. Women are more often turned off by the need to do this. People with huge knowledge of e.g.science (like Robert Winston) or maths or other countries or economics or psychological needs etc etc would probably not stand. We need to have a system that allows us to have Experts in our second chamber, people who know their stuff when it comes to discussing legislation but aren’t necessarily platform speakers. Personally I’d like to see a small proportion of the HoL being selected by lot, like juries. That would get in all sorts of people and opinions. Also, if it was elected, the HoC would no longer have sole electoral legitimacy for their policies, and we could have a lot more trouble with one House constantly countermanding the other.

  • Paul Holmes 27th Sep '22 - 1:35pm

    Any argument in favour of unelected people wielding legislative power is an argument against democracy. For all its shortcomings democracy remains the best alternative to unelected, unaccountable rulers in any shape or form.

    The problem with the idea of appointing ‘the great and good’ (however that is determined), to govern us is that one person’s ‘great, good and wise expert’ is the opposite of that to another person. It’s a different political and constitutional system but look at the controversial judgements of the Supreme Court in the USA. Or back in the UK at the role of appointed religious leaders in the Lords. Or at the ‘chumocracy’ appointed to the Lords by political leaders (including ours).

    What about the idea of appointing experts to the Lords or some replacement second chamber? Should a medical expert in IVF or heart surgery or cancer therefore only be allowed to scrutinise legislation to do with medicine in general -or only within their narrower area of medical expertise? What happens if their medical expertise collides with a deeply held religious belief as regards abortion or assisted dying or stem cell research? Does that particular expertise qualify them to also scrutinise and vote on legislation regarding tax, economics, education, defence, policing etc etc etc?

    Such decision taking must be exercised by people with elected, democratic, legitimacy not by hereditary or appointed people, however expert. People who can be removed in the same way and are not ‘untouchable’ once in place. Experts advise, elected politicians decide.

  • Paul Holmes 27th Sep '22 - 1:43pm

    Also, as the always excellent William Wallace notes, it is perfectly possible to devise the rules for a second, revising, Chamber in such a way that it is not just a political mirror or rival to the principle Chamber. Indeed the LD’s put forward one such proposal as William outlines.

    Just as, to enter a different debate, it is also perfectly possible to have an elected ceremonial President as Head of State (as in Germany or Eire), rather than the false alternative of asking who would want a President Thatcher/Blair/Johnson/Trump/Truss in the UK?

  • Assuming that we retain a second house to provide expert revision of proposed legislation, it needs to be a body of genuine expertise. Legal expertise within its membership is essential. It also makes sense to have some experienced politicians to engage effectively with the Commons. To provide the expert advice necessary for government to be the nation’s executive, this second house will need members from a wide range of backgrounds and interests. Our government has been chronically lacking in scientists, mathematicians, engineers, medics and successful business leaders – for decades.
    There is a case for having representatives chosen by our major institutions. For example, the CBI, TUC,the ten biggest UK businesses and ten biggest trade unions could each have a representative. Major charities like the National Trust, Mind and Shelter could qualify. Other interests might be invited to choose their own representative, eg for museums, disability support groups etc. Details of how many such representatives there would be seems to me less important than the principal that this body is visibly attending to the diverse concerns of most of our citizens and bringing real active intelligence to inform legislation.
    Because the second house is not executive, but just revises and advises, a composition that ensures a broad spectrum of expertise and interests removes the need for public elections or geographical representation, which are provided by the commons. By deliberately keeping the party politicians to a small minority, it should also retain public respect.

  • @John Reed “Because the second house is not executive, but just revises and advises”

    I think this is the key point for direction in HoL reform.
    – if the second house has executive powers then it should obviously be fully elected, because democracy is better than patronage. Exactly how it’s elected – beyond making it very difficult for any single party to gain a majority – I don’t think matters all that much. Specialist input can be brought in by non-elected routes still but the responsibility for decisions being with the elected officials is clear.
    – if the second house is really just for revision and advice to the Commons … does it actually need to be a second house at all? Could we – as many countries do – just have a single legislature (with a switch to some form of PR, of course), but significantly extend Committee stage for legislation to allow for much more input by specialists there, and potentially increase the size of the “Commons” to allow more parallel Committees – so rather than 650 “Commons” and 300-600 “Lords”, just have 1000-1200 “Commons”. Then we skip all the “which house is more legitimate” questions entirely.

  • Bradley Nelson 29th Sep '22 - 8:46am

    A second house has to be wholly elected for me, if we’re campaigning to reform HoL based on the democratic deficit, you can’t keep the spirituals and hereditary peers.
    The lack of expertise can be diverted to a strengthened committee system, govt also has direct advisors for this too. Experts could also be encouraged to speak in parliament on behalf of the committees.
    We avoid the US issue, since there is clear supremacy of he HoC, 2nd house is much weaker and will have PR so not a 2 party system. We can avoid the issue that politicians are *too* subjected to the electorate with longer terms, I suggest 10 years, the length of 2 commons terms. I think this is also simple too, STV for commons at constituency level every 5 yrs, then vote for your party as well as regional level reps for the upper house every 10 yrs. regional representatives can either be spread equally across regions/nations or not, but I’d say not, but specifically an amount that doesn’t give England a majority, it won’t anyway in the upper house bcoz of the party list half.

    HoC – STV, multi member constituencies every 5 years
    Upper house – 150 through party list, 150 regional reps 75 England, 45 Scotland, 23 Wales, 12 NI/ 10 year terms (1/3rd at a time?)

  • Peter Hirst 29th Sep '22 - 3:41pm

    We must first ask what is the purpose of a second chamber? Is it to review proposed legislation, promote the regions or act as an informed debating chamber? Depending on the answer we should create a chamber that fulfills those roles. It must however be fully democractic, all elected with proper codes of conduct, transparent and accountable.

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