Should we reform the House of Lords?

A recent governement defeat reminds me of what I value in our unelected upper house.

This is an subject which I had not been planning to write about quite so soon, however I found a friend gathering opinions on Twitter in the aftermath of a government defeat on a controversial bill currently going through Parliament.

 

The bill in question was the ‘Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill 2013-14’, which is currently in its report stage and received a damning line-by-line examination by the Upper House on 8th January, 2014 and defeated the government vote to continue to examining it on 14th January, 2014.

 

Ministers want to replace anti-social behaviour orders in England and Wales with injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance (Ipnas). Courts could impose these on anyone engaging – or threatening to engage – in “conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”. (BBC News – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-25648019)

 

The bill itself could be the subject of a separate entry all together, I detest the proposals as they stand and fully agree with what many of the Peers have said in their speeches.

 

“It risks it being used for those who seek to protest peacefully, noisy children in the street, street preachers, canvassers, carol singers, trick-or-treaters, church bell ringers, clay pigeon shooters, nudists…This is a crowded island that we live in and we must exercise a degree surely of tolerance and forbearance.”

Lord Dear, Crossbencher

“The Home Office I fear, from time to time, does not fulfil a purpose as a guardian of our liberties and as a watchtower against infringement of those liberties. Nuisance and annoyance is such an elastic term that, if applied widely, can be open-ended machinery which would catch all sorts of people who really should not be before the courts.”

Lord Morris of Aberavon, Former Labour Attorney General

 

My thoughts are however, would we have come to such a verdict had the House of Lords been a fully-elected chamber?

 

Since the New Labour Government of 1997, there have been attempts to reform the Upper House from an unelected to partial or fully-elected ‘Senate’. As it was part of their election manifesto the Lords could not stop the ‘House of Lords Act 1999’, which expelled all but 97 hereditary peers. That is as far we ever got, there were cross-party proposals in 2005 and 2007 but nobody could agree to anything.

 

Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, pushed for a Reform Bill in 2011, proposals included a 300-member hybrid house, of which 80% are elected. A further 20% would be appointed, and reserve space would be included for some Church of England bishops. Under the proposals, members would also serve single non-renewable terms of 15 years.

 

The proposals were considered by a Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform made up of both MPs and Peers, which issued its final report on 23 April 2012, making the following suggestions:

  • The reformed House of Lords should have 450 members.
  • Party groupings, including the Crossbenchers, should choose which of their members are retained in the transition period, with the percentage of members allotted to each group based on their share of the peers with high attendance during a given period.
  • Up to 12 Lords Spiritual should be retained in a reformed House of Lords.

 

To give you an idea of the effect the Reforms would have, currently the House of Lords has 780 members, 181 are Crossbenchers and 25 Lords Spiritual.

With the exception of the Archbishop of Canterbury, I personally wouldn’t like to see any other Lords Spiritual unless the leaders of other major faiths were given similar representation in our multi-cultural nation.

 

Its a popular phrase to call the Lords “undemocratic”, but with voter turnout generally less than 50% in recent elections are they actually a better representation of the British people than the House of Commons?

 

Many peers are not career politicians trying to canvas votes, and are not all given the title because they are buddies of the Prime Minister.

Each political party may nominate people to be given peerage, and the balance of the House is maintained roughly the same, although it will change slowly depending on the electorate’s choice of Government or composition of the Commons. Nominations of Life Peerage are decided for non-party members by the House of Lords Appointments Commission which is an independent body. The Sovereign will then create the Peerages on the advice received.

 

The crossbenchers are what I personally enjoy most about the House of Lords. There are 181 as mentioned earlier, contrasting strongly with just 5 independent MPs sitting in the House of Commons. They are the 3rd largest group, after Labour (220) and Conservatives (221).

 

The other part which I worry an elected chamber might damage is the range of expert skill and knowledge currently scrutinizing the legislation. If we take the example of the Anti-social Bill discussed at the start, former Judges, Police Commissioners and Attorney Generals all had the opportunity to view and amend the Bill.

Across the House, in political parties and crossbenches, sit professionals who are experts in academia, medicine, business, science, diplomacy, armed forces and the arts. Many serve the Lords part-time and remain active in their careers simultaneously. This is one reason the number of Peers seems so high compared to MPs.

Contrast that with US Politics, where you have creationists sitting on science committees…need I say more?

 

So I say, reform if you must! Make the House of Lords partially-elected, but do not take out its key strengths which are holding the Government to account, expertly scrutinizing and amending legislation and looking at the bigger picture which isn’t skewed by towing the party line.

 

Because eventually the ‘Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill 2013-14’ will have to be approved by the both Houses of Parliament, I’d rather it be given some sane thought first before Her Majesty has to approve it.

 

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mikepaws


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