I have wanted to weigh in on the topic of House of Lords reform for some time now, but have struggled to find a suitable jumping-off point from which to do so. I finally found one a few days ago, in the form of Ajay Kakkar’s op-ed piece in the Daily Telegraph entitled “Why Nick Clegg’s Senate is seriously flawed”, and now that the initial fuss about the US Supreme Court’s decision to uphold ObamaCare in the US is starting to die down a little, I finally have the chance to commit my thoughts to the blog.
In short, I am in favour of major reform of Parliament including its structure, composition and working practices, certainly incorporating democratic reform of the House of Lords. Kakkar’s piece, taken from a lecture that he delivered at Oxford some time ago, seems to me to represent a good summary of the many varied arguments against reform, so I am going to put forward my own views as a kind of point-counterpoint with his article.
Lord Kakkar (himself a crossbench Peer, from which knowledge we can perhaps already deduce his stance on this issue) begins thus:
Yesterday, a piece of legislation was laid before Parliament that has far-reaching ramifications for our country and its people – at a time when the political challenges we face are already considerable.
This is the first argument you are likely to hear against reforming the House of Lords, and it is a typical delaying tactic used whenever anyone wants to oppose or slow down any kind of change. It is the “oh, but surely we must focus exclusively on the pressing issues of X and Y, and we can worry about Lords reform in the future” argument, and we see it used against proponents of gay marriage and a multitude of other issues.
The “political challenges” that Lord Kakkar refers to here are, we can safely infer, the need to weather the current economic crisis. Personally, I do not believe that a single-minded focus on any one topic, be it from the executive or from Parliament, is very healthy. We are country of 65 million people and our government should be capable of tackling more than one initiative at a time.
Next comes an argument which is often deployed, but rarely explained – the supposed importance of ensuring the primacy of the House of Commons:
An elected second chamber is a principle that seems appealing. But we must consider two things. First, the House of Commons represents the will of the people, as expressed through democratic elections. As such, it must continue to hold primacy over the second chamber – or any other part of the machinery of government.
Really, it must? A fully or mostly elected House of Lords would also have democratic legitimacy, of a different and quite possibly beneficial kind. Elected peers would, under the government’s proposals, serve single terms of 15 years and thus would be more inclined to take the long view, and be less influenced by day-to-day political manoeuverings or machinations. Why, then, should the Commons hold primacy?
You often hear from opponents of Lords reform that the House of Lords is “complementary” to the Commons, acting in a reviewing and advisory role only, and that it need not therefore be democratic. But some other political systems – including that of the United States – actively try to build in conflict into their institutions, so that none are able to exercise unchecked power. This to me seems very sensible and worthy, and a democratically legitimate and empowered House of Lords, with a constitutional requirement that both must approve legislation before it becomes law, seems right and logical.
Second, there is the admirable clarity of our current constitutional settlement. The people elect their representatives to sit in the House of Commons, whose confidence any government must command. Those representatives can, in turn, be held to account and dismissed via the ballot box.
Within our constitution, the principle of democratic legitimacy is paramount – but there is no failing in the House of Lords, in itself, that would be resolved by a largely elected second chamber, as currently proposed. It is argued that democratically elected senators would be more accountable than appointed ones. But how would the election of 80 per cent of the chamber for a single, non-renewable term of 15 years, never facing re-election, make senators accountable to the voters who elected them?
Only a sitting parliamentarian, die-hard traditionalist or deluded person could look at Britain’s constitutional settlement and praise its “admirable clarity”. The thing isn’t even written down. There is nothing transparent, simple or clear about the division and exercise of power in Britain today, and I really wish I had been at that lecture at Oxford University to see if Lord Kakkar was able to deliver that line with a straight face.
Moreover, is Kakkar seriously trying to make the case that today’s breed of greasy pole-climbing career politicians is preferable to those who cannot run for re-election because they serve a single term? I would argue quite the opposite, that being able to take the long view, being less beholden to opinion polls or the 24-hour news cycle, could be a very good thing – at least for one of the two chambers of Parliament.
Another question that desperately needs to be answered is how this new second chamber will function in the context of its relationship to a democratically elected and constitutionally dominant Commons. The preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act states, with absolute clarity, that Parliament will have to take measures to limit and define the powers of any Upper House enjoying a popular mandate. It seems very unwise – at best – to create an elected Lords (or Senate) without setting out the precise powers of the two chambers and how disputes between them are to be resolved. If the Supreme Court is to play a role in that process, will Parliament still be secure as sovereign? Will our country need a written constitution to ensure the primacy of the Commons and protect the role of the monarchy?
This is from the Norman Tebbit “but if we allow gay marriage what courtesy title should we bestow upon the gay spouse of a Lord?” school of argument. The fact that reforming the Lords to add democratic legitimacy would entail extra work and the answering of some additional questions is hardly a reason not to proceed. Of course we need to properly define the relationship between the two chambers of Parliament as part of the reform process, that goes without saying.
Will the new UK Supreme Court be involved? I don’t know, but sure, let’s discuss that. Will we need a written consitution? Absolutely! Lord Kakkar says this as though it would be a bad thing and another legitimate reason to avoid reforming the Lords, but I have been clamouring for a consitutional convention and a written British Constitution for years, I think it would spur much-needed discussions about the role and size of government, and its relationship with the people. And again, this worry about the primacy of the Commons. Why is this essential to maintain? I do wish an opponent of Lords reform would take the next step and explain why the Commons should remain dominant in our system, rather than just stating it as though it is commonly-held and irrefutable fact.
But perhaps the proponents of an elected second chamber believe their reforms will make a qualitative difference to the kind of people who sit there. If they did, they would surely be worth considering. But what sort of senatorial candidates are likely to come forward? Will we see many social workers, historians, scientists, charity administrators, campaigners or academics? Or is it more likely that the Senate will be seen as an attractive option for those party politicians unable to secure election elsewhere?
I would rather have a democratically elected House of Lords full of conniving fools and morons than an undemocratically composed House of Lords full of people who did favours for former Prime Ministers, and a bunch of bishops from the Church of England. Just my two cents.
The role of the Lords, whatever its membership, should be to share the increasing burden of scrutinising and improving the torrent of British and European legislation that comes forward; to bring to bear experience, expertise and independence of spirit in advising and counselling the Commons; and ultimately and always to bow to its primacy.
So in short, that’s it. I’m still casting around the internet looking for an opponent of House of Lords reform who can actually take the next step and answer some of these questions. Why must the Commons retain primacy? Why would a written Consitution, even a limited one that just defines the relationship between the chambers of Parliament, the devolved assemblies and the Supreme Court be such a bad idea? Why are single terms of a long timespan worse than neverending terms of five year intervals?
As yet I have seen no compelling answers to these questions from those who want to preserve the status quo, and so on this issue I am squarely behind Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.