Allan Massie: M’Lud there is a case for delaying any reform
THE energy and effort currently focussed on changing our second chamber is misplaced, mistimed and mistaken.
It is quite possible that by the time you read this, the latest attempt to reform the House of Lords will have been torpedoed by an alliance of rebel Tory MPs supported by the Labour Party. It is also widely accepted that David Cameron’s less than enthusiastic support of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Lords reform scheme is in the nature of a quid pro quo: if he backs Nick Clegg in this, then his coalition partners won’t block the constituency boundary changes which are expected to benefit the Tory party, in England anyway. Curiously, this consideration doesn’t seem to have impressed his rebellious backbenchers.
Piecemeal reform of the Lords has been going on for a hundred years now, consequently the composition of the House of Lords is now very different.
It is a very large body, but many of this members attend only rarely, and we now have what are known as “working peers”, who have undertaken to be regular attenders, though there is, I think, no means of compelling them to do so. Members of the House draw no salaries, but they receive an attendance allowance and claim quite generous expenses. The new attempt at reform would change the House more, by providing that 80 per cent of its members should be elected for a 15 year period of service.
Direct election of members of the Lords or Senate would challenge the primacy and democratic authority of the Commons as present arrangements do not. Whether such elections would improve the quality of the work done by the Lords is an open question. One of the merits of the status quo is that , though the Government is frequently defeated in the Lords, and its legislation is amended there, nobody doubts that ultimately the will of the Commons must prevail, and that the principal functions of the Lords are limited to revision and the offering of advice. Another good point of the present arrangements is that many of the peers, and especially of the cross-benchers, are not party politicians, but men and women of experience and distinction in their own particular professional field.
An unelected Upper House may be an anomaly in a democratic age, but the line of its defenders is that it does much good work, and that reform is unnecessary. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Moreover, there is little evidence of public dissatisfaction with the Lords, or of an desire for reform.
Yet we live in a time of constitutional change. The United Kingdom has never been a truly unitary state – after all, it has two distinct legal systems, the English and the Scottish; and only for part of its history has it even been a single-Parliament state. It certainly isn’t that now, even though what one may call the subsidiary parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been created by Acts of the UK parliament. In theory Westminster could dissolve them by repealing the Acts which brought them into being, as indeed the Stormont Parliament in Northern Ireland was closed down by the UK Government in 1972. Circumstances then were exceptional, and it is now inconceivable that Westminster would suspend or dissolve the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies.
Whatever the merits of the present proposals for the reform of the House of Lords, they don’t seem to have taken account of these other constitutional developments. Of course if we in Scotland should choose to vote for independence and the break-up of the United Kingdom in two years’ time, any reform of the House of Lords won’t concern us. We would then have to consider whether there should be a second chamber in the parliament of an independent Scotland, and the case for having one would be strong. But that is another question.
Suppose however that we vote “no” to independence. There seems to be general agreement that such a vote would be followed by further devolution of powers from Westminster to Holyrood whether this takes the form of devo-max or devo-plus. The Welsh Assembly is also seeking further powers and is likely to get them.
One consequence of devolution has already been the reduction in the number of Scottish and Welsh MPs. Further devolution will probably see another fall in the number of Scottish constituencies represented at Westminster as less and less of the business of the House of Commons is relevant to Scotland. This would be a logical development which few of us could reasonably oppose.
Nevertheless we would still be part of a United Kingdom, but of one which was being transformed asymmetrically into a quasi-federal or confederal state. How would Scottish , Welsh and Northern Irish interests be best represented in such a state, in a manner that was fair, not only to them, but to England too?
This is where the House of Lords or Senate – whatever you choose to call it – might come into play. Assuming that the House of Commons became in effect an English Parliament with less than 10 percent of its membership coming from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, then the Upper House of Parliament at Westminster might be where the over-arching interests and concerns of the UK as a whole were best dealt with.
If, as is possible, England itself moves towards decentralisation by the creation of regional authorities, then the Upper House might become something rather like the German Bundesrat, the house of the German parliament which is drawn from the Lander.
All this is speculative of course. What however is abundantly obvious is that the reform of the House of Lords now being proposed takes no real account of the changed structure of the United Kingdom, still less of how this may change more in the next few years. The sensible thing would be to put House of Lords reform on hold, till the nature and extent of these changes are clear, and then to reform it in such a way as reflects and suits the new form of the UK
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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