House of Lords Reform – Uncertainty and Evolution
The RT. HON. LORD FOULKES of Cumnock discusses reform to the House of Lords, arguing for an elected second chamber in the long run.
A beauty of our constitution is that it has the flexibility to gradually evolve over time. Nowhere is this more evident than in The House of Lords. Yet, whilst largely welcome, most discussions surrounding House of Lords reform have throughout my political career fallen into the trap of principally considering the nature of the membership of the Second Chamber and how they become Members. In the past, I’ve voted for complete abolition on the one hand, to a fully elected and functioning second chamber on the other. Whilst this may seem like an inconsistent and even eccentric approach, I trust that my following remarks my shine some light on why reform of the Lords is rarely a straightforward matter.
Now that reform is once again in the spotlight, we should approach it from a wider perspective – not forgetting its actual functions and how it relates to the House of Commons. Take, for example, the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, which is currently before Parliament. It should look at a process of reform and not just a one-off fix to satisfy the ambitions of a Deputy Prime Minister with no experience of the Second Chamber.
So, the discussion over Lords reform should consider both the long term ideal and the immediate changes which can help move smoothly towards that ideal.
For my part, I come at this from a starting point that in a democracy the legislature should be elected and, if there are two chambers, both should be elected.
There is a strong argument in favour of a uni-cameral system to avoid gridlock between the two chambers of a bicameral legislature. But there is also an argument that a second chamber can provide a democratic check on a first chamber controlled by a powerful executive.
In the UK we cannot afford not to consider what might be ideal, even if such exists, but must, like the man lost in Ireland searching for the route to Dublin, start from where we are.
We currently have a revising Second Chamber which, through Conventions, accepts the primacy of the House of Commons should ultimately prevail and so a form of appointment is not considered to be outrageous, although our form of appointment, without a ceiling and with relatively little scrutiny does stretch legitimacy and credibility to the boundary.
As we have seen with devolution, if the Second Chamber is to be elected it will take more powers upon itself and to deny this is to misunderstand elected politics.
However, my view is that we should agree a long term aim of an elected Second Chamber, but before that is put into legislation we need further detailed consideration of:
a) The relative roles and functions of the two chambers
b) The machinery for resolving disputes between them
c) The method of election to both chambers
None of this can be properly considered before the next election.
Nevertheless, what we certainly can begin to seriously consider with immediate effect are the kind of short term proposals that would improve the present position, whilst not pre-empting longer term reform. This should include:
a) Ending all rights of Hereditary peers to sit in the second chamber of the legislature
b) The agreement of a ceiling in the number of members
c) Arrangement for the retiral of members i) who attend infrequently ii) who volunteer to do so and iii) who attain the age of 80 during a session of Parliament
d) A statutory Appointments Committee and a more transparent system of nomination for membership
e) A system of remuneration for secretarial support for those agreeing to take no outside public or private appointments
This arrangement would be agreed for this and the next Parliament on the understanding that longer term proposals for election would then be considered.
The Rt. Hon. Lord Foulkes of Cumnock is a Labour Party peer in the House of Lords, and was previously MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley and MSP for Lothians.