A Strong Voice for Croydon Central - Gavin Barwell MP
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Reforming the House of Lords
18/05/2011 22:45:00

Yesterday afternoon the Deputy Prime Minister made a statement to the House of Commons setting out the Coalition Government’s plans to replace the House of Lords with a wholly or mainly elected second chamber.

All three major parties included a pledge to reform the House of Lords in their election manifestos but you wouldn't have known it from the reaction to yesterday's statement. Labour MPs saw it as an opportunity to attack Nick Clegg and many of my colleagues weren't very sympathetic either.

I accept that some MPs have genuine concerns about the implications of the proposals but others clearly weren't interested in whether they would be good or bad for the country - they were worried that they would be bad news for them (someone else representing their area might provide unwelcome competition and a more legitimate second chamber would be better able to challenge the judgement of the House of Commons, which would mean less power for MPs).

As a Conservative, I don't believe that we should change our constitution unless there is a strong case for doing so. But when it comes to the House of Lords, there is a strong case.

Call me simplistic but I start from the premise that we should be able to choose the people who make our laws. As the expenses scandal showed, electing people doesn't guarantee anything but it does ensure you can get rid of people who are doing a bad job. Having one chamber of Parliament appointed by the Prime Minister is just plain wrong. Yes, the House of Lords does contain some genuine experts but it also contains lots of ex-MPs, party apparatchiks and donors.

Some of my colleagues ask how I can support first-past-the-post for the House of Commons and proportional representation for the second chamber. The answer is because they are different bodies with different roles. The most important requirement for an electoral system for the House of Commons is that it give the largest party a majority so that it can enact its manifesto and we can hold it to account if it fails to do so. But as I repeatedly acknowledged during the referendum campaign, first-past-the-post isn't perfect. In particular, it tends to under-represent minor parties. The way to address this is through the electoral system for a second chamber. Because its role is a revising one, having a system that makes it next to impossible for any party to have a majority is a positive advantage.

The Government has published a draft Bill to illustrate one possible option - 240 elected members, elected via a proportional system called STV for a single term of 15 years in three tranches every 5 years, and 60 appointed members plus 12 Church of England bishops. The matter will now be considered by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament.

I have an open mind on the issue of wholly or mainly elected. It would be good to retain an element of genuine expertise but there is a danger in having two classes of members. Even if you passionately believe in a wholly-elected second chamber, as the Deputy Prime Minister said 80% elected would be a lot better than what we have now. Allowing people to only serve for one term is certainly a good idea since it will curtail the power of the whips, ensuring that all members are reasonably independent-minded.

Finally, I fully accept that this issue is not a priority for many of my constituents, who are understandably more concered about immediate issues like jobs, the NHS, crime and schools. But ultimately House of Lords reform is about strengthening Parliament to improve the quality of the decisions we make on all these issues. It's important, it's been talked about for years and it is time it was sorted out.

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Readers' Comments

On 26/05/2011 13:26:00 Croydonsfuture wrote:
An interesting post that is honest on the Lords’ current weaknesses.

Very few ordinary voters hold the current Lords in esteem. As you honestly note, the public’s perception is that it is packed with far too many ex-MPs, party apparatchiks and donors.

The government’s proposal for Lords’ reform represents an improvement over the current dire situation. But it is disappointing that the government seems to have limited its consideration of the available options. There are two options in particular that seem to have been “binned”:

- completely scrapping the Lords; or

- creating a new upper house that supports Britain’s emerging federal structure.

Although the government seems to have dismissed both of these options out of hand, it is worth looking at their pros and cons.

Although many countries have an upper house (or bicameral parliamentary system as the political scientists would describe it), there are some notable examples of advanced and highly democratic societies where there is only one chamber (a unicameral system). The Nordic countries all have only one chamber. Not only have the Nordic countries achieved strong economic performance for decades, but they have also achieved high levels of social cohesion and rank near the top of the international rating tables for transparency and political honesty.

One of the surprising omissions from the current debate on Lords’ reform is cost. The Conservative party made a manifesto pledge that parliament’s cost would be reduced – a pledge that had a real resonance with voters. It is hard to get the Lords’ up-to-date costs, but current running costs seem to be c£120m p.a. – a very sizeable sum! At present, the Lords are unpaid but can draw expenses. Under the government’s proposals, it seems that the new members would be salaried. There will also be election costs. Some media commentators have suggested that the “all up” costs associated with the new upper chamber could triple.

The heavy costs of the proposed new upper chamber are of concern at a time when the government seems minded to save just £12m p.a. by cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600. As the UK is a parliamentary democracy (i.e. not a presidential democracy), most voters put a much higher value on MPs than upper chamber members. It is already becoming clear that the mooted reduction of 50 MPs will lead to bitter conflict as the usual charges of gerrymandering are made. At the most fundamental level, 600 MPs equates to an average constituency of 103,000 voters. Such large constituencies would stretch the ability of even the hardest working MP to maintain the personal connection with their constituents.

Britain’s bicameral parliamentary system evolved from the attempt to give both the aristocracy and the common people a say in government. But in modern times, in other countries that also have bicameral systems; the upper house is often an attempt to give political expression to the federal nature of those countries. The powerful upper houses of the United States (the Senate) and Germany (the Bundesrat) are good examples of building in a federal element to their respective political systems.

It could be argued that the level of devolution granted to Scotland and Northern Ireland already makes the UK a federal country. The recent sweeping election victory of the SNP almost certainly assures increased devolution for Scotland. Given increasing Scottish self determination on a whole host of issues, the “West Lothian” question becomes ever more relevant. Perhaps if we must have an upper chamber, then it should be designed to accommodate the growing federal nature of the UK?

Your observation that Lords’ reform is a low priority for voters is very true. However, Lords’ reform is a classic example of where our politicians can be radical and far sighted. It is disappointing indeed that the current proposals on Lords reform are so modest and that there have been little in the way of debate on alternative choices.

On 08/07/2011 14:15:00 Gareth Young wrote:
If the Lords is to be reformed it should be reformed into a federal parliament allowing the Commons to be turned into an English parliament. If necessary the federal parliament could have powers of scrutiny over the national parliaments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Under the present asymetrically devolved syatem an elected House of Lords makes it territorial and introduces the West Lothian Question, and proportional representation could make it be seen as the more democratic and more representative of the two houses. And if English Votes on English Laws is introduced it will also be seen as the more British of the two chambers, a point that Paddy Tipping raised during a debate on Lords Reform a few years ago:

"Let us consider what would happen if there were two classes of Members of Parliament, and certain MPs could not vote and, in particular, speak on certain issues. If there were a rival Chamber up the Corridor, where Members from across the United Kingdom, however they were elected or selected, were able to speak, there would be a case for people to say, "We are the legitimate Chamber of the United Kingdom, and you Commoners down there are a de facto Parliament for England." That is the threat. I do not say that that situation will arise, but we need to explore the issue."

It makes no sense to be having a Commission on the West Lothian Question that examines the Commons whilst creating the same mistake in the Lords. But in his wisdom Clegg has kicked the Commission into the WLQ into the long-grass, along with reform of the Barnett Formula (which has obvious ramifications for resolution of the WLQ: Scottish MPs have a right to vote on English legislation because it has financial implications for spending in Scotland).




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