Allan Massie: Reform may not solve Lords problem

WHILE it carries out its role as a revising chamber well, its undemocratic nature still causes disquiet, writes Allan Massie

The Queen opens Parliament from the throne in the House of Lords. Picture: Getty Images

Unfashionably, perhaps, I have some regard, even affection, for the House of Lords. It seems to do its job quite competently, revising government bills that the House of Commons has passed either with insufficient scrutiny or simply because members of the party in power have responded obediently to their whips. Governments are defeated in the Lords far more frequently than in the Commons, and this is surely a good thing. Then a fair number of the members of the Upper House are there because they have been successful in other fields – business, the professions, the armed forces, the arts and so on. They are not professional politicians, and this, too, is a good thing. Though the Lords may be seen by some as an old folks home for superannuated former ministers and other politicians, there’s surely a good case for keeping such people in public life. It has been observed that politicians often talk more sense when they have no hope of office. It’s a pity incidentally that none of the last three prime ministers – John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – accepted a peerage when they left the Commons.

Of course the House of Lords is undemocratic, at least in the sense that its members have not been elected. Some find this offensive, though others – looking at the people we do elect and at the quality of the elected chambers in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – might say “so what?”

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Nevertheless, House of Lords reform is in the air again, and not only because of Lord Sewel’s little escapade, or because of David Cameron’s deplorable intention to create more Tory peers so that his government may enjoy a majority in the Upper House.

Since the 1911 Parliament Act, which severely curtailed the Lords’ power, there have been two significant reforms of the Lords. The first came in 1957 when Harold Macmillan’s government introduced life peerages to dilute the hereditary element; the second when Tony Blair’s government removed most of the hereditaries. Arguably both reforms were flawed. Fixed-term peerages, possible renewable ones, might have been better than peerages for life, and the hereditary membership of the Upper House might have been better ended altogether – especially since a sideline of the reform was that hereditary peers might now stand for election to the Commons.

Still, if reform is now again envisaged, what form should it take? Most agree that a revising chamber is desirable; that a single chamber such as we have at Holyrood is unsatisfactory – and would, one might add, be even more so if we had opted for independence last September. Those of us who think, as Unionists, that the piecemeal constitutional changes which have taken place, and are going further, have made the case for a constitutional convention cogent, mostly, I think, hope that such a convention would devise a scheme for a British Upper House that would in some way represent the interests of the different parts of the United Kingdom. The German Bundesrat has been suggested as a model. In it the federal states – the Lander – participate in the legislation and administration of the federal republic.

There are two difficulties with this idea. The first is, of course, the disproportionate nature of the UK and the understandable absence of any desire among the English to see their country chopped into regions; the second, that, just as understandably, the SNP has no interest in any proposals that might make for the better government of the United Kingdom. So I fear the constitutional convention is a non-runner. It makes sense, but I don’t see it happening.

In the last parliament the Liberal Democrats proposed a part-nominated, part-elected Upper House. The idea didn’t get far. Nevertheless, it too makes sense. It does so first because a fully-elected Lords or Senate would undoubtedly be a rival to the Commons, even if the mode and timing of elections were different; second, because most recognise that there is some value in having people of experience outside politics in the revising chamber. The question then would be the terms of appointment and the nature of elections for the elected part of the House. These should be different from the method employed to elect the Commons, or indeed the Scottish Parliament. First-past-the-post would be unsuitable. This has the merit of – usually – giving us a government that can command a majority in the Commons, but it doesn’t fairly represent opinion in the country. So some form of proportional representation would be desirable, preferably one which fairly reflected the variety of opinion in different parts of the country, as, for example, European elections did before Scotland became a single constituency electing eight MEPs.

I would suggest two other desirable conditions for members of a reformed Upper House. First, no member should be permitted to hold any ministerial post. Second, all candidates for election should be required to stand as independents, with no affiliation to any political party, trade union, business organisation or professional body. They should see their role as the supervision and scrutiny of the professional politicians.

Nice ideas, I think, so nice that they are not going to be adopted; not a chance that they might be, for you can’t imagine politicians likely to legislate for a non-political body to keep an eye on them. This being so, any reform of the House of Lords is likely to be limited. A retiring age may be imposed. Likewise fixed-term peerages perhaps. One thing we can be sure of: there will be no reform which makes the Upper House more popular, and thus challenges the authority of the Commons or the devolved Parliament and Assemblies. We can expect much talk and little action. Fortunately this may not matter too much, if only because the House of Lords as it is now is in many ways more worthy of respect than either the House of Commons or the Scottish Parliament.