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How Should the House of Lords Be Reformed? Essay Example

Pages: 9

Words: 2418

Essay

Introduction

This paper addresses the question of ‘How should the House of Lords be reformed?’ within the context of British constitution.  It is important to recognise that certain reforms have already been initiated by the House of Commons and in some regards this is considered to be a work-in-progress project.  The concept is one of modernity and transformation  in order to make the function and purpose of the House of Lords and Peers more acceptable to the needs of modern society.

The House of Lords

The House of Lords is the second or upper chamber of Parliament.  It essentially performs the role of a ‘watchdog’ and has the right to comment, amend and scrutinize government action and legislation.  Many people think this is an outmoded concept and adds little value to modern democracy. The people sitting in the Lords are classified as Peers of the Realm and currently amount to around 825 people. The Parliament Act of 1949 removed the right of Veto in the House of Lords and now they are only in an advisory capacity.

In historic terms the Lords were the landed gentry and represented the interests of the land owners in the UK.  As democracy developed in the country these rights were gradually eroded by the House of Commons who represent the electorate or people of the land.  The House of Lords Act in 1999 severely diminished the roles and member of the Lords and only allowed some 92 hereditary peers to remain in the House.  The Stage 1 reform is committed to continuing the transformation and ultimately getting rid of the remaining 92 hereditary peers.  This brings to the point of the House of Lords reform bill that was announced in the Queens Speech on 9th, May 2012 and is based upon an elected chamber in the Lords.

The Controversies

Much of the latest controversies are around the considered rights of the hereditary peers.  Many UK citizens consider this to be an outmoded concept that served both the Lords and the Church to retain power over the people or vassals. Equally the Bishops (Lords Spiritual) used this as a base to establish religious powers in the country.  This has all been swept away now and there hangs the question over legitimacy and purpose in the retention of the hereditary Lords who merely wish to cling to titles and a class structure that is no longer applicable in modern British society. (Politics.co.uk)

It was Lord Wakeham who led the Royal Commission in putting forward a set of proposals and compromises for the hereditary peers. The Commons failed to reach agreement on any option that was put forward and this was subsequently dropped in 2004. The controversies however continue to this day “Electing the second chamber is not self-evidently the democratic option – by dividing accountability it can undermine the capacity of the people to hold government to account (since policies may emerge for which it is not directly responsible) and can sweep away the very benefits that the present system delivers.” –  Lord Norton – March 2012 (Politics.co.uk)

Structure of the Lords and need for Reform

The House of Lords currently has 825 Peers and 26 peers that are Bishops within the Church of England plus a further 92 which are hereditary peers.  The latter being the remnants of the original group of entire members.  Most of the Peers are now appointed by the recommendation of the Prime Minister and mainly consist of eminent scientists, military generals, senior politicians etc.   In 2010 the Government argued that the unelected chamber of the Lords was undemocratic and required urgent reformation.   It was proposed that the transformation should embrace the concept of 4/5ths of the Lords should be by election. The Church of England Bishops should be cut from 26 to 12; in future these would be elected peers and the hereditary composition would be dissolved.   Although this argument had been brewing for a considerable time, many felt this new push projected fears from the new coalition government of the Lords gaining influence and power over the House of Commons.  Many thought too much attention was being diverted to this issue instead of getting on with major issues of the day like tacking the UK recession.  (BBC News).

Timetable of Reforms

Much of the reforms indicated are projected forward to be completed by the end of 2015.  This being in alignment with the planned next UK General Election.  The coalition was facing considerable opposition from the far right conservative MP’s  and this forced a confrontation with Prime Minister Cameron and his back benchers.  He committed to having one more attempt to reform the Lords before drawing a line under this and moving on.  This further illustrated the fragility of the current Government and difficulties with a coalition government. It was Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats who were committed to Lords reform and he has accused Cameron and the Conservatives of failing to honour the agreement and commitment.

How should the Lords be reformed?

There is no doubt that the majority of UK Citizens would view the House of Lords as an outmoded institution and in urgent need of change. More extreme opinions would vote for an outright abolition of the House of Lords but this might be rather radical with a coalition government. As such it might be better to examine the constituent parts and consider the mechanisms for unravelling this. Consider the following:-

  • There is no real need or purpose for Bishops or Senior Church clergy to sit in a House of Lords anymore. This is just merely a status thing. All of these positions should be dissolved immediately;
  • There is a strong argument for the second chamber to be completely abolished according to a transition timetable. It no longer serves any real viable purpose and in some ways it questions the democratic viability of the House of Commons.  An elected chamber may serve some form of judicial review process but even this is questionable from a skills and expertise viewpoint?
  • England is moving more towards an isolationist country. We have the potential dissolution of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  As such there is even less scope for retaining the function of the House of Lords.  The concept of England’s future isolationist role in Europe is even more disturbing.

Should the British people have a say?

Nick Clegg the Deputy Prime Minister feels that the decision on the reformation of the House of Lords should not be a decision that is subcontracted to the British people.  He feels that very few people really care about this issue. People would be annoyed that the Government would spend millions of pounds on holding a referendum on such a question where there is already a large consensus between the political parties.  It is the responsibility of Governments to Govern on behalf of the people and takes the necessary steps to maintain an efficient administrative system. Clegg stated that less than 1% of the British Public, within a recent poll, thought the House of Lords reformation was an important subject.  (Hope).   This subject has highlighted the differences in political ideology and thinking of the conservative / liberal democrat coalition government.  The conservatives feel this is a liberal democrat agenda and marks some fundamental differences between them.  It is likely to raise more divisions between the two political parties. Senior Conservatives like that of John Redwood MP have cautioned Cameron that he is not in step with the mainstream political thinking of his party. Another MP Mark Pritchard has indicated that a vote on the House of Lords Reform should also be linked to a vote on the retention of Britain’s membership in the European Union.

Cameron to press on with reforms

The British Prime Minister said that he wanted to press ahead with reforms that relate to boundary changes and reduce the size of the House of Commons, based upon expenditure and economic grounds.  This placed him at odds with his Deputy Nick Clegg who stated that his Lib Dem Ministers would be opposed and vote against such reforms. This comes after the failed co-operation on the House of Lords reforms and many believe that should this division take place it could spell the end of the coalition and force a general election.  Much of this attitude is seen as payback from the Lib Dems in Cameron’s failure to rally his fellow conservatives and honour the agreement that would complete the House of Lords reforms.  This vote on the boundary reforms is scheduled to take place in the autumn of 2013 and should this division continue to deteriorate it may well force an earlier election (Wintour).

Nick Clegg felt personally humiliated by Cameron and the Government in their lack of support to reform the House of Lords. The opposition Deputy Harriet Harman was quoted as saying “It can’t be right that in the 21st century we have an unelected chamber making decisions on the law of the land…”  (Preece).

Conservatives not following manifesto commitments

The plans for reform of the House of Lords were a manifesto commitment between all three of the main parties at the time of the 2010 election.  Both the Liberal Democrats (coalition government partner) and Labour (opposition) have continued to support measures of reform.  A draft bill was compiled and presented in May 2011.  The bill established three main areas of transformation of the House of Lords.  The transition plan included the following key points:-

  • Members in the Lords to be based on non-renewable 15 year term periods
  • There would be a single transferable vote in Northern Ireland
  • The ability for members to resign be expelled or suspended
  • The IPSA will set rates of pay for members in the Lords
  • The Parliament Acts will oversee the reformed House of Lords
  • Semi-open election lists for mainland GB Members(Clegg)

The diagram below illustrates the progress of the bill and how far it needs to go in order to achieve the reformations required.  Right now we have barely passed the Second Reading in the House of Commons.

It is ironic in fact that the very bill on the House of Lords Reformation has to go pass through three readings in the House of Lords itself and no doubt this will take an even longer passage of time.

Finding another way for reforms

Dr Andrew Blick[1] has argued that we need to find another way to deal with the reformation of the House of Lords. This needs to be removed from the ordinary world of party politics and as such handled outside of the Parliamentary constitution.  In this way a conflict of interests is removed by the Dominant House of Commons trying to reform the second chamber. In addition to the conflict of interest problem a second dilemma arises in that Parliament minimises any outside intervention or help in support of the broader objectives. The problem is made more complex by the possible dissolution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and as such becomes more of a complex legal matter.

One possibility might be the forming of a Citizens Assembly in order to deal with the issues of the House of Lords reformation.  Such a body could be made up of a range of subject matter experts to address the problem.  Blick points out that similar operations have been tried in both Scotland and Canada. They have the advantage of separating the political environment from the policy making environment.  This would likely be more acceptable to the Public who would see the approach as less beurocratic and less expensive to the taxpayer in terms of the time, cost and effort that has historically been expended on this.  Dr. Blick’s points are well founded in terms of applying the committee approach and putting constitutional lawyers to work in establishing a framework that will work and not be hampered by conflict of interests and as such will be able to deal with the issues in a more impartial manner. (Blick).

The interesting element of this is that the coalition government is trying to introduce major constitutional changes but fails to have a coherent constitutional strategy in order to implement the transformational changes that are required. This in turn has highlighted the fragility of the coalition government and political differences that ultimately have proved difficult to bridge or resolve.

Conclusions – A bridge too far ?

Many now consider the reform of the House of Lords has now become a political impossibility for the Coalition Government.  ( See Dr, Meg Ryan, University College, London University and her assessment of the current situation – Video link | http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/parliament/house-of-lords ).  This becomes difficult for Nick Clegg, who has already been humiliated by the initial failure and will find it difficult to step down for fear of being perceived as a weak leader and a puppet to Cameron.  Equally, David Cameron faces a back bench rebellion from Senior Conservative MP’s who see this as a fundamental difference of party politics and policies between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. In a sense this has created a political impasse of which neither leaders look like winning.  The opposition can take advantage of this situation by pointing out the fragility of the coalition government and the lack of clear decisive leadership.  They also highlight how the Conservatives have broken the original three party manifesto and this is another indication that the Liberal Democrats are more closely aligned with Labour in terms of political ideology.

There is no doubt that this will prove a difficult challenge for both leaders of the coalition government as they continue to address this over the summer period.  It further endorses the concept put forward by Dr. Andrew Blick in terms of finding another way that can deal with these much needed reforms without this hindering the more important political considerations of dealing with the UK recession, improving economic growth, the ongoing relationships with Europe and other more important items on the agenda.

Works Cited

BBC News. House of Lords Reform. 6 8 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18612233?print=true. 25 10 2012.

Blick, Andrew. Constitutional issues could be more satisfactorily handled outside of the Parliamentary framework. 5 9 2012. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/2012/09/05/constitutional-issues-parliament-blick/. 25 10 2012.

Clegg, Nick. House of Lords Reform Bill 2012-13. 1 7 2012. http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2012-13/houseoflordsreform.html. 25 10 2012.

Hope, Christopher. Nick Clegg says decision on Lords reform should not be ‘subcontracted’ to the British people. 22 4 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9219496/Nick-Clegg-says-decision-on-Lords-reform-should-not-be-subcontracted-to-the-British-people.html. 25 10 2012.

Politics.co.uk. House of Lords Reform. 3 2012. http://www.politics.co.uk/reference/house-of-lords-reform. 25 10 2012.

Preece, Rob. Humiliated Clegg tells MPs he ‘still wants House of Lords reform’ as plans for elected chamber are scrapped. 4 9 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2197728/Nick-Clegg-Deputy-PM-tells-MPs-wants-House-Lords-reform-plans-elected-chamber-scrapped.html. 25 10 2912.

Wintour, Patrick. Boundary changes: David Cameron vows to push on. 8 8 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/aug/07/david-cameron-boundary-changes/print. 25 10 2012.

[1] Dr. Andrew Blick, Professor at London School of Economics

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