It is a while since I bent my mind to the vexed question of reform of the Upper House of Parliament. I have however been thinking about it considerably given the topicality of the debate. Let me from the outset make it clear that I am in favour of reform of the Upper House, I don’t think that it is any longer defensible to have a House of Parliament that is entirely without a popular basis. I am though naturally cautious and for me getting it right is far more important than getting it done. Reform of the House of Lords has been bubbling away for more than a century, and whilst that makes some impatient to finish the job I am still loathe to rush things and get it wrong. House of Lords reform has proven to be an issue that fails to grab attention far too often and therefore once done I fear if it proves to have been badly done we and future generations will be saddled with a monster that will never be approached again.
As I have said I am generally in favour of reform but the reform has to be a proper one and I fear that the proposals sketched out by the Deputy Prime Minister are not good ones. The fact that the reformed chamber will still be called the House of Lords whilst nobody in it will be a Lord is for me not a particularly auspicious start. Then there is the size of the beast, it is envisaged that it will be a chamber of 450 and given that the House of Commons will be reduced in size to 600 we will have a second chamber 75% the size of the first. I think it could and should be smaller. I don’t have a problem with retaining an element of appointment so that subject matter expertise can be retained in a reformed chamber. That is one of the concerns that exist about moving to an elected basis that the experts would not submit themselves to election. So I think that some means of keeping expertise within the House should be encouraged.
The point of elections is to give the voters a method of control not just over initial composition but also over continued makeup. The concept of a non-renewable term therefore to me runs counter to a notion of democracy. There seems little point to me in balloting in the first instance if there is no way of subsequently rewarding success or punishing failure. Part of the point of electing politicians is to do a job but there has to be a means of showing approval for success and disapproval of failure. That means is the process of re-election. With a non-renewable term the effect in my view is to replace appointment for an indeterminate period by a narrow panel of selection with appointment for a determinate period by a much wider panel. The actual method of election as I understand it which would be a similar system to that in use for European elections makes the actual election even more pointless. The real process of choosing members of the upper house would be in the purview of those who formulated the respective lists, the wider voting public would merely be involved in constraining the choice of others. Under such a system the top few names on the lists of the biggest parties would be all but guaranteed election. That to my mind is not a particularly good basis for reform of the chamber.
Some opponents of reform make the argument that an elected second chamber would challenge the primacy of the first and use that as a basis for opposing any reform whatsoever. There is of course likely to be a change in the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament in the event that both draw their membership from popular election, but I think it is a little odd to believe that such change could not be managed. I also don’t believe that many people are of the opinion that afflicts Members of Parliament that the House of Commons is so august and bathed in serene majesty that is could and should brook no challenge. I believe that it is entirely possible to have two elected chambers and to set up mechanisms for the resolution of disagreement and to ensure that one has a certain pre-eminence. I think those who suggest otherwise are not incapable of seeing this they are just unwilling.
The problem I see is that whenever reform of the Upper House is contemplated and proposals put forward they seem motivated by mechanics and not principles. The mechanics of the election of the House or the proportion that is non-elected, nobody seems to look first at what a second chamber is there to do. Any reform of the House should in my view spring from what it is anticipated that house should do and the perspective it should bring. Only then should the mechanics be considered as to how to give effect to the form of House that you want. I just do not trust that the proposals are properly motivated, I fear the underlying consideration is one of partisan advantage. When reforming the apparatus of Democracy the last thing it needs to be infected with is partisanry, it is vital that the reforms that are made have widespread support and are good not just for this moment but for the future as well.
I do not like the proposals that have been put together, I consider that they are not even a quarter baked let alone half. I believe that they replace selection by a narrow independent committee with selection by a number or partisan committees, only mildly constrained by a public vote. It will in effect still be an appointed chamber just with the method of appointment varied. The whole set of proposals represent a mess of positively gargantuan proportions and a second chamber so constituted would detract from rather than enhance the Mother of Parliaments. In short it is my belief that these proposals are gruel of a most thin and base consistency, it is a platter of reform that should be returned uneaten to the kitchen; the chef instructed to produce a dish more appetising and more readily consumed.