openDemocracyUK

Lords: elect the second chamber, strengthen parliament

Britain's current 'House of Lords' is an extension of the Commons by patronage, extending the influence of old party political figures while freeing them from the need to be elected or accountable to voters. It has to be replaced by a democratic chamber
Laura Sandys
5 March 2012

In the Members’ Tea Room, there is constant complaint from backbenchers of all parties about the diminishing power of Parliament. Some claim that the executive is too strong and undermines the voice of Parliament. Others claim that the patronage of the executive (or shadow executive) erodes the independence of Members. Some feel the Parliamentary deficit does not allow us to adequately scrutinise government.

As a result, I find some members’ opposition to House of Lords reform puzzling. While there are some important amendments required to the draft bill, the overall principle of a reformed and elected house will deliver a stronger more empowered Parliament with greater powers and incentives to hold Government to account. Collectively we will have a fully functioning bicameral system without the self imposed restraint that the Lords show today.

With additional capacity, Parliament could begin to effectively scrutinise long term government strategy. Perhaps the pressing need to secure energy investment would not be quite so critical had the last Government’s long term strategy been examined. If an elected second chamber had held the last Government to account, the Crossrail project could have been delivered on time. With reform, Parliament would be stronger, not weaker, more effective not less.

Opponents seem to have three main concerns about how elections would impact Parliament: the Government might find it difficult to steer its legislation through two "legitimate" houses; the primacy of the House of Commons would be threatened; and the loss of top-class expertise to elected representatives will only produce political ciphers.

The opponents of reform seem very concerned about the poor old Government and how it would struggle to get its legislation through Parliament if it had two fully functioning houses - both legitimately elected. I would hope that two Houses of Parliament would not defeat any UK Government more than it does the Governments of other bicameral systems across the world. And if a stronger Parliament meant that the Government was deterred from passing legislation then, as a good Conservative, my other objective of getting Government to do less, better, would also be achieved.

Primacy of the House of Commons is an interesting issue. The proposed legislation would keep all the safeguards in place as they stand today, securing the primacy of the House of Commons through the existing conventions on mandated legislation. However, the new Chamber might well exercise more of the existing powers that the House of Lords currently has at its disposal but doesn’t use. It is a misunderstanding that these powers would be “taken” from the House of Commons, it will be power taken from the executive’s ability to railroad through legislation.  This sounds like good news for Parliament.

In addition, many of us believe that any increase in the exercise of power by the House of Lords would be matched by an increase in the activism of the House of Commons. What I have learnt through this fascinating committee is that there are so many powers that both houses currently have that are rarely - if ever - used.  Not a bad education for someone who believes that Parliament should be more activist!

The last key point that is always put forward by opponents of reform is that of expertise being lost to our Parliament. This is probably the most irritating of all as a defence of a chamber appointed through patronage. Firstly, it is as if there was no expertise in the House of Commons. "We must have the House of Lords as otherwise there will be no one in Parliament who knows about medicine, or law, or business or science." Members of the House of Commons do not arrive here like children kidnapped by Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, with no outside life before arriving in Parliament.  And to compound this particular myth, the majority of the active Lords are merely ennobled members of the House of Commons. So how, by moving from one chamber to another, they have accumulated a wisdom that belied them when they were in the House of Commons I cannot think.

These arguments, however, divert us from one key principle - Parliament should root out patronage wherever it appears. The patronage associated with the appointment of Members of our legislature, has, and will never, be acceptable. But I suspect that, like the hope of winning the Lottery, those that defend the system secretly dream that they will one day get that letter in the post, summoning them to sit on those red benches without having to deliver leaflets, face aggressive hustings and take a few knocks on the campaign trail.

A contribution to the debate on the Lords in Conservative Home, cross-posted with thanks.

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