Time for a British Senate

The House of Commons had a five hour debate on reform of the House of Lords.  Last night’s debate followed a two day extravaganza of special pleading by their Lordships, marvelling at the wonder of their unelected special status.

Reform of the House of Lords was started by the Liberal government a century ago.  The preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act (a significant piece of legislation but only three and a half pages long) states “whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately be brought into operation.”  Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill, the three great reforming Liberal ministers, would surely be astonished  to discover that their proposed reform was still struggling to find support a century later.

Lloyd George called the Lords “Mr Balfour’s poodle”.  I’m not sure what animal would be appropriate now but the 21st century Lords is a pretty strange collection of beasts.   First, there’s the 92 remaining hereditary peers, a hangover of the botched Blair reform in 1999.  It is absurd that more than 10% of the membership of one House of Parliament owe their places due to their DNA, or as Lloyd George put it, “chosen at random from the unemployed.”  The absolute bare minimum of reform now should be the removal of the hereditary peers.

Then there’s the 26 Bishops of the Church of England.  Even if you believe in a theocratic element in Parliament, it should not be from a particular denomination of one faith from only one part of the United Kingdom.  I would prefer the removal of guaranteed seats for faith based legislators but stripping them of votes in the House could be a compromise.

The third component are the vast bulk of the current Lords – over 700 creatures of patronage.  Prime Ministers from Macmillan onwards have appointed for life their cronies, donors and assorted members of the national “great and good”.  This enormous body is far in excess of what is needed for a second chamber, particularly one that is unelected.

I feel the case for reform is clear.  Two objections are usually cited by those who are opposed.  First, an elected second chamber would challenge the supremacy of the House of Commons.  I think this is wrong – it would still be clear that the general election for MPs in the House of Commons would decide the composition of the Government.  I think this could be strengthened by drawing ministers solely from the Commons.  The second chamber would then have a purely legislative role and its members would not be ambitious to join the executive.

But an elected second chamber would certainly have more legitimacy than the current Lords and this would strengthen its hand when scrutinising legislation.   Fear among MPs that this would challenge the Commons rests on the flawed assumption that we do a great job in holding the Government to account.  In my experience, this is far from the truth.  If the red benches raise their game then the green benches would surely respond.  This exposes the real truth of the anti-reformers’ position – those who want to keep the House of Lords as it is are also content with a weak House of Commons.  The Commons has a supine relationship with the executive – we are the poodles now.

The second objection often cited is that the present House of Lords is some unique depository of national wisdom and expertise.  Frankly, I think this is drivel.  Walter Bagehot said “the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.”  I’ve done so many times and have seen some good speeches but also some remarkably ignorant contributions.  True, there are some people there who have been experts in their field.  But sometimes that expertise is out of date.  A narrow expertise doesn’t make someone an accomplished Parliamentarian.  A retired general would certainly make interesting points in a debate on Libya or Afghanistan.  But what of his views on green energy, or stem cell research, free schools or gay marriage?  My views can be tested in an election and are under constant review in between elections by my constituents and the media.  The range of views held by experts are not under the same scrutiny.

Members of both houses are legislators, not expert witnesses.  We have to vote on a huge range of subjects.  We are not short of expert witnesses – they appear before select committees and meet with individual MPs every day.  Further, why should experts fear an election?  There are many experts in the House of Commons.  Is the US Senate a bunch of dimwits?

So I do not accept that election is a bar to talent or expertise.  It is also an extraordinary conceit for any expert to believe themselves above democratic legitimacy.  I would like to see a British Senate that is entirely elected.  Senators should be elected by a proportional voting system and should represent the nations and regions of the UK.  They should also be able to stand for re-election, rather than the single 15 year terms proposed in the Coalition Government’s white paper.

Since 1911 we have had piecemeal reform that has diluted the hereditary element but built up a class of life peers many of whom are just as remote from the lives of the people for whom they legislate.   We have waited long enough for a second chamber constituted on a popular basis.  It is time to allow the people to choose the whole of their Parliament.

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