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A plague on both your houses: Lords reform in the UK is long overdue

Despite cross-party consensus that democracy must no longer be a stranger to the second chamber, a few naysayers are still arguing against real reform of 'the mother of all parliaments'. The Select Committee must, finally, get the job done.
Katie Ghose
17 November 2011

Lords Reform should be a done deal - it has been 100 years in the making after all - yet while the Electoral Reform Society was giving evidence to the Select Committee this week it became clear that a determined minority would rather pretend the last century of debate never happened.

Unusually for a major constitutional matter, all three major parties, Labour, Lib Dems and Tories, went into the last election with clear manifesto commitments to reform the House of Lords. This should no longer be a conversation about whether we need to reform the Lords but simply an agreement as to how.

The government has not attempted to reinvent the wheel with its proposals; the shape of the proposed chamber, the considerations over how it should be elected, and the proposals over term limits are all in line with mainstream thinking on the subject and build on the work undertaken by the previous government which was often conducted by people working across party lines.

The groundwork has been laid. The intellectual heavy lifting is complete. So why, you might wonder, do some committee members charged with ensuring the bill is fit for purpose, still question the merit of elected over appointed peers and worry that MPs and elected peers will tread on each others’ toes?

We recognise the ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude that endures in some quarters but this reflects a poverty of ambition. Reform will preserve the chamber’s vital scrutiny role and for the first time give its members the legitimacy conferred by public election.

This week I experienced an Alice in Wonderland moment, forced to defend the basic principle that those who make the laws should be elected by those who must live by them. Instead of explaining why democracy should be denied in the House of Lords, the naysayers look for rabbit holes to lead us down, treating the issues of primacy and the relative powers of each chamber as deal-breakers. These issues are important certainly but they can be resolved, as evidenced by bicameral legislatures around the world where both chambers are elected by the people.

Ironically it is the careful deliberation and revision of government proposals which some opponents fear will be weakened if peers are elected rather than appointed, yet the Select Committee haven’t always shown the hearty appetite for considered scrutiny that we would have liked to see towards this bill.

This matter must not be allowed to burden yet another parliament. It’s time for all parties to stick to their commitment to get the job done and for the Select Committee to get on with what it is there to do – ensuring that the bill, when it is presented, is as good as it can be. Then maybe the second chamber of the ‘mother of all parliaments’ can finally begin the process of joining the 21st century.

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