Dr Paul Behrens: Gunning for positive reform
Finding the right balance between competing powers is the key to success for Lords Reform. It’s as complex as the dreaded West Lothian question, but get it right and it could run like clockwork, writes Dr Paul Behrens
WHEN the curtain fell on the Commons debate on the Lords Reform Bill, it felt a bit like watching the closing credits of a Bond movie. All the drama was gone (the special effects hadn’t been all that special), and what was left were the words “Lords Reform will return in… The Coalition with the Golden Gun”. Or something like that.
And the sequel is indeed in the works, to be released in autumn. There will be some tweaking and twisting, and the reform that finally makes it to the statute books (if any) is not likely to bear much of a resemblance to the current proposal. New suggestions abound, ranging from a vocational chamber to total abolition. But what was wrong with the original concept?
It all sounded so good when Clegg stood at the dispatch box talking about a House which would be “properly representative of all parts of the United Kingdom”. And a regional chamber – one in which each of the four nations of the UK have fair representation – would not be a bad idea. It would even make sense from the point of view of a government intent on saving the union. Granting regional representation can be part of a settlement: Scotland stays in the UK and gets, in return, a decent share of the power at Westminster. Models like that are employed around the world, and often with success: regional chambers tend to meet with a good level of acceptance.
But there is a fly in the ointment. The distribution of peers under the Bill looks wonderful – as long as you live in England. The West Midlands should be delighted: they currently have about 23 peers; the Bill promises them 33. What about Scotland?
Three elections are to take place before the House reaches its full strength. At each of these, Scotland gets 10 peers, Wales six and Northern Ireland three. England gets 101. Among the first 120 delegates, it will take the combined power of Scotland, Northern Ireland and four Welsh peers just to outvote the South East of England.
The big problem is that the Bill uses a purely mathematical system for the allocation of peers to territories. Its basis are population figures, and that allows it to lump nations and regions together. Scotland counts as just one region among twelve, and not even the biggest one. The same applies to Northern Ireland and Wales; the remaining nine regions are English.
Would it be better to allocate the same number of peers to the four nations? That is problematic too: the point can be made that such a system leads to imbalance and unfairness. The 53 million people of England might be just a bit displeased about getting the same number of representatives as the 1.8 million inhabitants of Northern Ireland.
But it doesn’t need to be as extreme as that. To take a continental example: there are disparities among the 16 German States too – North Rhine Westfalia has almost 27 times as many people as Bremen. But Germany went for a compromise: In its second chamber, each state gets a minimum of three seats, and if a state’s population reaches a particular threshold, additional seats are awarded – but only to a maximum of six. It does not remove all inequality. But it works: the regions are recognised as individuals, but their population figures are not entirely ignored.
Finding the right balance is only one of several difficulties that the establishment of a true regional chamber faces – and perhaps not even the trickiest. There are at least three additional points which have to be considered.
First, a regional chamber must enjoy a certain measure of power in its relations with the Commons. At the moment, the Lords are mainly a revising chamber which can always be trumped by the “other place”. If that situation remains unchanged, there would be little point in regional representation. Scotland and the other nations would have a voice, but not a say. They might as well write letters to the editor.
A more powerful chamber is a worry to Westminster MPs, who like to invoke the spectre of a deadlock between the two houses – as happens from time to time between US Senate and House of Representatives. But it does not have to be that way. Some systems have adopted a mediating mechanism – such as a joint committee of both houses which must work out a compromise if the chambers can’t agree. It is an effective solution, especially if the committee operates away from the public glare.
Second, in the long run, a regional chamber can only work if the nations of the kingdom enjoy equal power over their own affairs. That sounds straightforward, but is far from the reality today. Scotland has a parliament, Wales an assembly, but English affairs are still debated and decided by Westminster. In a regional chamber, Scottish peers would have the right to debate English matters, but many topics concerning Scotland would have to be left to Holyrood. This imbalance (an emanation of the West Lothian question) – carries the seed for new strife. In federal states, the problem does not even arise: each region has its own parliament, and the same legislative powers over its own affairs.
Third, and most importantly: the nations and the union must be able to meet at eye level. A regional chamber does not work if the nations are still dependants of an almighty central power. If nations with independent identities, cultures and histories decide to stay in a union, they do so by choice, not by duty.
Their participation in the government of such a union is a right, not a gift. That, however, is another point which is not reflected in UK politics today. It is, after all, the hallmark of devolution that powers can be taken away again; and while it is unlikely that devolution would be reversed altogether, there have already been situations when the British muscle was felt.
The suspensions of Stormont are one example. It’s quite different in federal systems: hard to imagine Obama taking away the legislature of Texas (and don’t imagine it in front of a Texan).
Creating a regional chamber is, therefore, not quite as easy as the Bill would have us believe. You cannot just take one aspect of a state’s structure and say: ‘I hereby reform thee.’
The constitution is a major clockwork in which dozens of cogwheels engage one another. There may indeed be reason to convene, as some authorities have suggested, a constitutional assembly which looks at the organisation of the state as a whole.
That, however, is a challenging task. Understanding the motions of the cogwheels is itself no mean achievement. Getting consensus on reform is an even harder job, and the positive effects of such a project are not likely to be felt in the lifetime of the current government. But a detailed look at how to improve the clockwork may be a worthwhile endeavour. The outcome could be a beautiful timepiece – and one that might even be accurate.
• Dr Paul Behrens teaches constitutional and international law at the University of Leicester
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 4 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North east