The House of Lords is ripe for reform.
On that much, all 26 members of the Joint Committee on Lords Reform, the three main political parties at Westminster and around two-thirds of members of the public are agreed. Opinion is so deeply divided over how it should be achieved, however, that a majority of the committee want a referendum to be held before any change goes ahead while 12 members issued an alternative report rejecting the Government's draft Bill and calling for a constitutional convention to consider Lords reform.
The principle that those who make law should be accountable to the general public who have to abide by their decisions has driven the quest for elected members in the second chamber since 1911. It has an alluring logic. On closer examination, a number of problems become apparent. A fully elected second chamber would inevitably vie for authority with the House of Commons. It would also remove, at a stroke, the wealth of experience outside politics of cross-bench peers appointed for their expertise in areas such as science, medicine, business, technology and international relations. This is recognised in the recommendation that 80% of members of the upper house should be elected, with 20% nominated. Whether that is the optimum proportion will be disputed but if the principle is democratic accountability, the majority should be directly elected.
The reduction in the number of hereditary peers in 1999 was intended as a step away from privilege but, while only 92 of the 800 members have inherited their seats in the House of Lords, the consequence has been to increase the power of political patronage. Life peerages have become almost routine loyalty rewards for former MPs. And it is likely that direct elections will perpetuate the power of parties, which will back approved candidates.
A new relationship will have to be forged between the two Houses of Parliament, possibly requiring codification, if the primacy of the House of Commons is to be ensured and the potential for gridlock in legislation is to be avoided.
Although the joint committee that reported yesterday decided reform was significant enough to warrant a referendum, the evidence from opinion polls indicates there is little public demand for this. Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, is the driving force behind reform, which was one of his party's Coalition requirements. He sees no need to hold to a referendum on the proposals, arguing that, because Lords reform featured in the election manifestos of all three main parties at Westminster, there is a mandate for change. This political argument is bolstered by some practical points.
A turnout of only 42% for last year's referendum on the voting system for Westminster elections suggests only a minority would turn out to vote. With the referendum on Scottish independence looming in 2014 (raising the prospect of further constitutional change in the UK), it would be important to avoid two major votes being held at similar times.
There is much to be celebrated in the House of Lords. In recent years it has been an important bulwark against the erosion of civil liberties. But a largely appointed second chamber is an anachronism and the process of reform must continue apace.
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