Saturday, 13 August 2011

House of Lords - The future of our upper Chamber


I am reminded today (01/06/11) about the reforms proposed for  the House of Lords. I am very much a reformer, a keen political observer, but first and foremost reader, I am a historian and so my approach to the historic proposals that are in front of Parliament, is well, from a historic angle if you will.

The House of Lords over Time
The Lords itself has its origins dating back over 1000 years, so the BBCs recent documentary, (which has now expired on iplayer) would have me believe. It served as an advisory body to the King filled with nobles, Bishops and Lords.
It was briefly abolished during the UKs brief time as a republic, but was restored by Charles II in the 1660s.
It consistently tried to stop the Great Reform bill in 1831, which was passed a year later.
It also famously refused the people's budget of Lloyd George in 1909, which then led to the Parliament Act of 1911.
After World War II the Salisbury Convention was established, dictating that the Lords would not stop manifesto pledges of the government from becoming law. It also dictated that the Lords could only delay, not block legislation, by up to two years.
The composition of the house, which was always conservative dominated, began to change under after the Life Peerages Act of 1958 which gave the Monarch, and through the power of patronage, the Prime Minster the ability to appoint members to the Lords, including women for the first time. Previously, the house had been all men.
In 1997 the new Labour government sought abolish hereditary peers from the Lords. A compromise with the conservative leader of the lords Viscount Cranborne saw that 92 hereditary peers remained, and which 92 were to be elected by the lords themselves, and incidently made William Hague, leader of the Conservatives at the time, look foolish at PMQs, as he didn't know that Blair had made this compromise with the Viscount. Ironically, the way that Lords vote to replace vacancies of such peers, is through AV. AV was also used to decide which hereditary Lords were to remain in the house after the House of Lords Act of 1999.

Where The Parties Stand
 All the main parties had within their manifesto a call for an elected upper house. Yet it appears that opinion is divided amongst Labour and Conservative members unsurprisingly. However, they are being joined by a small minority of Liberal Democrat Lords.

Jessica Asato, the Labour Yes leader in the AV referendum, writes a very principled-based blog entry here about why her fellow party members should support the reforms. The comments below that disagree with her stance speak of how they feel an elected upper house could challenge the will of the Commons, and how its 'experts' provide strong scrutiny for government legislation. They also give the impression it would be filled with political saps, like the Commons.

I am unsurprised that some Conservative members oppose an elected chamber. Take Jacob Rees-Mogg for example. He represents Somerset North East, and amongst some of my fellow AV campaigners, who see more of him than I do, he is regarded as not only part of the Conservative traditional base, but his manner seems only to go as far as representing the most die hard of conservative Conservatives. In all honesty, when I read the initial coalition agreement, scraped out over 5 days between a delegation of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, I was dumb-founded at the fact Conservatives had offer an elected upper house to the Lib Dems. If you had said to me when I was finishing my degree this time in 2009 that a Conservative dominated government was going to bring forth legislation in two years time for an elected House of Lords, with proportional representation as its electoral system, I would have said two words to you: DREAM ON

I read on twitter yesterday that a minority of Liberal Democrat peers oppose an elected upper chamber. Its sad and little surprising when you think that these people are Lib Dems, but not so unsurprising when you think about the fact that they are indeed Lords. After all, to be a pro reforming Lord, you have to want to abolish the very chamber that gives you your position, and thus abolishing your position as a legislator entirely.

The Lords Reform Proposals themselves
 The proposal call for an elected upper house where members are elected 'proportionally' (how that proportionality will work in practice, isn't yet clear), on the basis of rolling elections in thirds (like the Senate in the US Congress, and like some local councils in England) with 100 members elected every five years, with each member serving one fifteen year term. 

So how could elections work out in practice? Well the psephologist in me decided to work it out. For the sake of argument, I am going to assume that the 100 elected members of the House of Lords in each election, we'll call them MLs for the sake of this article, will not be elected to represent the UK as a whole, but to represent 'regions' of the UK, made up of a number of constituencies. Exactly on the same principle for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliamentary regional list representatives.

If you were to divide the UK's population purely proportionally, you would discover that
England accounts for roughly 83% of the UK population as a whole
Wales accounts for 5% of the UK population as a whole
Scotland accounts for roughly 9% of the UK population as whole
Northern Ireland accounts for roughly 3% of the UK population as a whole.

Dividing this up into realistic regions, we get
England with 83 HLs spread across 20 regions with 4HLs in each and 25 constituencies in each region.
Wales with 5 HLs spread across Wales with 30 constituencies within Wales
Scotland with 9 HLs spread across Scotland as 2 regions with 4 or 5 HLs in each and 26 constituencies in each region.
Northern Ireland with 3 HLs spread across Northern Ireland as 1 region with all 16 constituencies within it.

Those of you who are good at mental arithmetic will have worked out that 20x4=80 leaving 3 HLs leftover, and that 20x25=500, and there will be 502 constituencies in England come 2015. Well, I would suggest that 1 HL goes into the region that incorporates the Isle of Wight's two constituencies, and therefore as a region contains the two constituencies leftover. The remaining 2 HLs in England, I would allocate to the most populous regions in England, where ever they end up being.

Ideally, I would like to see the Lords be elected under STV, however as the public rejected AV, a preferential based voting system in May, I suspect, that as we already have AMS in Wales, Scotland and London, and the D'Hondt PR for European Parliamentary Elections, my gut feeling is that the closed party list system with the D'Hondt formula, will be used for elections to the House of Lords. This would therefore give, Parliament as a whole, Additional Member System, or for short AMS.

The results of an AMS elected Parliament, I have no doubt, will produce consistent representation for the following parties: Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, SNP, DUP, Alliance, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Green Parties of England, Wales, Scotland. I suspect UKIP might also pick up the odd seat in the Lords.

The other alternative of course, is to have the proportional factor by area rather than by population. In which case the number of HLs for each constituent country would be worked out like this.

England: 130,427 km sq = 53.49%
Wales: 20,778 km sq = 8.52%
Scotland: 78,772 km sq = 32.31%
NI: 13,843 km sq = 5.68%
 Total: 243,820 km sq

This method sees Wales and Northern Ireland gain slightly per head, and Scotland gain massively per head, all at England's expense.

The Powers of elected upper house
I for one feel that as an elected upper house, the new Lords has greater legitimacy, and therefore deserves more power. It is this bloggers view that the Lords should still be subordinate to the Commons, but only after the final reading has occurred, and the bill and final amendments has been voted on 5 times in each house, should the Commons, have the right, by a two thirds vote, to impose the Parliament Act upon the upper chamber in order to pass legislation.

The role of the Lords as a house of scrutiny should still exist as its primary function. I believe that the Lords should hold constituency surgeries once a month, but it should dedicate the largest proportion of its time scrutinizing legislation, in what I feel, as its more dignified manner, certainly compared to the Commons.

Finally, the Queen's Speech. The throne of HM Queen lies at one end of the existing Commons. When the Commons is fetched for the speech, it will no longer have the right to slam the door in the face of who ever it is from the lords comes to get them, as the historic reason for that act is to highlight that the Commons is elected, and separate to the Lords. Equally, the Queen cannot set foot in the Commons by law, as it is an elected house of which is not to be dictated to by the monarch. Should this therefore be true for the Lords as an elected chamber? If so, where does the throne go? and what of the role of the state opening of Parliament? 

I shall leave you ponder those questions.

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