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Home » Elections and Governance, electoral

New Lady, New Lords? The lady makes her case

Submitted by on 30 Nov 2010 – 11:38

By Baroness Hayter

I was amongst the first to take my seat in the Lords after an election which saw all parties campaigning to move to an elected Upper House.  The immediate question is therefore not “whether?” but “how?” – which proves to be a trickier matter.

Two major challenges are posed.  Firstly, how will the Upper House distinguish itself – and remain subservient – to the Commons?  Secondly, how will stalemate between the Chambers be avoided?

The move to election will follow the May 2011 referendum and possible changes to the voting system for the Commons.  Should the vote go against any change from First Past the Post, will the Coalition government nevertheless adopt Proportional Representation for the Upper House without a mandate from the people?  Or, assuming the referendum outcome favours AV (the Alternative Vote) which is then introduced to the Commons, will votes for the Upper House be on the same basis?  If so, how will voters distinguish between the votes they are casting, if on the same day?  At the moment, if they vote for a local council and parliament on the same day, they are clear that one empties the dustbins and the other takes us to war.  What will be the difference between two Houses, especially as the candidates will be party nominees who share a Manifesto?  Assuming there will be fewer members of the Upper House, candidates will presumably cover 3 or 4 parliamentary constituencies, but will that be the only difference?  Presumably, the same sort of people will appear on the ballot papers:  party loyalists who have come up through the party machinery, selected by party membership and reflecting current party characteristics.

Assuming the UK requires two Chambers, it might therefore be preferably to move to a more clearly differentiated role between the two.  If the Upper house became more like an American House, containing no ministers and calling the executive to account, then it might attract a slightly different membership.  Rather than duplicate the detailed legislative scrutiny of bills (which really should be done properly in the Commons rather than left for tidying up, as now, to the Lords), the Upper Chamber could call the ministers to account to explain the purpose of any proposed Bill, and then reflect – having taken evidence from relevant stakeholders – both whether it was a worthwhile measure and also whether its content would deliver on its intention.  This approach has already been proposed by Lord Filkin’s Cross-Party Group and has much to commend it.  Certainly, unless the roles or composition of the Houses are very different, it will be difficult to justify two expensive Chambers to a hard-pressed electorate.

The alternative, of course, is to elect the Houses at different times, and for different periods.  However, that raises the possibility of stalemate, where half way through a Commons Parliamentary session, elections to the Upper House could produce a very different political composition.  However, this might be seen, in view of its newness (and particularly if elected on a more proportional system than the Commons), as a truer reflection of the people’s current political priorities.  Furthermore, if elected for a longer period than the Commons, not only would its members be able to disregard current party feelings secure in their longer tenure, but might even change sides and be unmovable for many a year.

This would present real problems for party managers but also for the government faced with an elected second chamber secure in its mandate, representation and legitimacy and thus unbending to the will of Prime Minister or Party Leader.  Should its members be failed or retired MPs, they would be resistant to party blandishments; if young and eager for preferment, perhaps to the Commons and a ministerial post on a future occasion, then where is the Upper House’s independence?

For many observers, there is a desire to see the second House more reflective of the UK population, in terms of ethnicity, gender, geographic background, disability – and general diversity, of class, creed, age and colour. At present, parties have been allowed to take steps to increase the proportion of women amongst their candidates, but no similar positive discrimination action is yet permitted to create a more balanced parliament.  This must be high on our demands for a reformed and elected Upper Chamber.

So conversations on the reformed Chamber must march on, making it work for better government, greater transparency, openness and accountability – or else there will be little point in making the change.  There will be implications for the Commons if its role does change, rightly forcing MPs to undertake the legislative scrutiny with greater care.  Some voices judge that change will be a long time coming.  That would be highly regrettable, with hereditary peers voting on legislation well into the 21st century, whilst appointed Lords sit for the rest of their life making laws which affect those born today.  However, there will be just one chance to make this enormous change, so all these issues must be clearly debated and decided before the method of election is chosen and the parties start picking their candidates and writing their election addresses.  This is too important to get wrong.