Tag Archives: House of Lords Reform

Christoph Smets: A UK senate: Competition for the Commons or federalising representation?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the warning shot fired from the ballot boxes of the Scottish electorate in this year’s referendum on independence, the West Lothian question has stirred with renewed power. It seems to have triggered a highly unconventional response on the part of the Labour party’s leader, Ed Miliband, who – as reported by James Hand and Donal Coffey – has recently promised to abolish the House of Lords altogether and replace it with a senate, should Labour win next May’s general election.

The exact form and composition of such a senate would be decided by a Constitutional Convention, but it appears that, for the moment, the model favours another directly elected chamber, representing regions or counties and cities. This seems odd, considering the House of Commons’ primary function: Since voters in the UK do not vote for a party but for a candidate only, who is also only eligible for a single constituency, the voting system in the UK is already aiming to represent not only the people, but the people of a certain city or region (which, in fact, is the House of Commons’ historic root). After replacing the second chamber with another elected representative body, now concerned with representing “towns, cities, regions [and nations]”, the question arises who would have the more legitimate claim to representing the people of any given area: the MP or the MS (Member of Senate)?

A second chamber representing the states (or Länder, in the case of Germany) isn’t all that new to a German legal scholar, and it may be surprising to hear one such criticising plans of regional representation, but there is a difference between the German and the (proposed) British approach, which, at first sight, does not seem to improve democratic legitimacy: whereas the (would-be) future UK Senate would be elected, the German upper chamber, the Bundesrat, represents the federal states themselves and is made up of delegates from the governments of the already existing federal states’ parliaments. This fact leaves little room for any doubts as to who is representing the people, and who is not. It is more or less an institutional interest group, de facto representing the interests of the states vis-à-vis central government (which is made up of the same parties holding the majority in Parliament).

Since all UK countries – barring England (!) – have their own parliaments, a senate design of this kind could be fitting, but it would necessitate the constitution of a separate English parliament, thus easing the West Lothian question.

Looking at Britain’s European neighbourhood, a middle ground between popular vote and nomination by governments is currently occupied by France, where the Sénat is elected indirectly on the sub-regional level of the départments (101 in 27 regions for the whole of France), mostly voted for by members of the even lower level of city parliaments.

Looking at Mr Miliband’s plans in more detail, it would see senators being elected not solely on a regional basis, but would see “an elected Senate that properly represents the towns, cities, regions and nations that make up the United Kingdom. […] This regional and national representation will avoid duplicating the constituency link of MPs […].”

So, Mr Miliband’s senate would mean an amalgamation of both the “state model” – as practised in Germany, large parts of Europe and the US (where the term “senate” most likely is borrowed from) – as well as a regional model more akin to France. But this kind of mixed design also sends a mixed message: if voting in the UK countries would be based on constituencies it would conflict with the last part of the statement, but if voting in all parts of the UK would be based on regions it would conflict with the former commitment to towns, cities, regions and nations, emphasis added. So, a UK Senate in the proposed form should logically trigger a mixed election procedure: By the UK countries’ general electorate for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and by the electorate of certain regions, (towns and cities?) in England. This, however, would neither fit the purpose of regional representation within the UK countries, nor federalisation or devolution for England, but only the lack of English regional representation, perceived by Mr Miliband.

But the weighing of senate models might obstruct the broader picture: It transcends prudent parliament design, devolution and representation, touching on the very core of British government as Her Majesty’s Government, and Britain as a constitutional monarchy. Abolishing the House of Lords also means abolishing peerage (at least as the right to sit in parliament), and in doing so a royal prerogative, by far exceeding the importance even of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949. It would mean abolishing a part of British constitutional identity. It is therefore not only prudent, but necessary to see House of Lords’ reform as a result of a truly open and transparent dialogue, which cannot – by its nature – be at the discretion of any single party.

As a means for guidance, one might consider how any proposed change compares to the road travelled thus far. It has been one determined by a history of Britain’s very own way of government, one that does not do away easily with a time-honoured modus operandi simply because the current situation suggests a change in approach. One might therefore take a look at the institutional roots of “senates” in the respective countries: Both Germany and the US for instance share a history of having evolved from pre-existing states or principalities, later having been bound together by a supreme power of common government. While at first glance this seems to be exactly the case for the UK as well (albeit with a predominant English role), there is – in contrast to Germany and the US – no history of these states themselves being institutionally represented at the central power, what with the historic House of Lords being made up of noblemen mainly representing themselves, not necessarily their regions. As hinted to above, since the split of parliament into an upper and lower House in the times of Edward III., this was actually the task of the House of Commons, but even they did not represent Scotland, Wales and so on, but the shires or counties, of the Kingdom of England (and later of Great Britain and the United Kingdom respectively).

While both in Germany and in the US, states or principalities were caught up in a continuous institutional power struggle with central government, the representation of noblemen (and later -women) in the House of Lords was indiscriminate to the extent that the peers were bound together rather against the Commons (with a friendly working relationship in the last decades) with the dominant constitutional struggle of British modern history being one of parliament (meaning in this case the House of Commons) against king or queen, not principalities against the ruling house of the Kaiser or North vs. South like in the US. While therefore the representation of states both in Germany and the US has always been a matter for “senates”, in the UK it has mostly – albeit indirectly – been accomplished by the House of Commons.

It must thus be argued that the currently favoured senate model with a shift of regional representation from the Commons to a senate is one that does not easily fit the British way of government and its history, at least not in an evolutionary way (that last point also having been made by James Hand and Donal Coffey). But while the last two decades or so of British history have seen highly increased devolution to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the notion of increased power for the UK countries’, especially for (Northern) Ireland, dates back to the 19th century. So, one might say that there is an evolution towards devolution. That notion entails not only more legislative powers, but elected legislatures: the UK countries have, to a significant extent, already taken regional representation into their own hands. From the English viewpoint, this devolution has come about as diminishing English, in the sense of common British, powers. This – and the role of England as the historic nucleus of the United Kingdom – may explain the difference in approach regarding the idea of representing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland nationally on the one hand, and England regionally on the other. With devolution still progressing (for instance by proposals to make permanent the Scottish Parliament), the urge to keep the kingdom together is in Mr Milibands model translated into a “House of regions and nations”, the contradictions of which I have pointed out above.

But if one were to simply adopt another country’s model, thus ignoring British idiosyncrasies, one would not solve questions specific to the past and present developments within the UK. So, a “State House” model for the UK could have features of both European and British traditions: If the general electorates in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales were to vote for their own parliaments (which in fact, barring England, they already do), concerned with regional representation, these state parliaments could legitimately and with regional focus deal with problems specific to the respective states’ questions and problems. This is also signified by the results of the general elections for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which turned out seats for members of common British parties as Labour and Conservatives, but also regional parties as Plaid Cymru, SNP, DUP, Sinn Féin and others. The common interests of the United Kingdom could then – with better focus – be dealt with by a senate of states’ representatives. The German model would see those simply nominated by states’ governments (see above), but as there is a British tradition for the House of Lords to be made up by peers belonging to parties, a British “State House” could see senators being elected by the UK countries’ parliaments. This way, there would be democratic legitimation for the senators by way of indirect voting while actually providing the “clearly defined different role for the Senate” as desired by Mr Miliband. This could also provide an opportunity for a reduced size of the upper chamber, which has been in the debate for quite some time now. A question which cannot be elaborated on here, is that of powers and competencies, which would have to be newly negotiated when introducing such drastic change, keeping in mind for instance that some (e. g. veto) rules have their basis in the historic struggle between the House of Lords with its noble origins and the House of Commons as the democratic force in the narrower sense.

But the centrifugal force of devolution is not only eased by the creation of a “State House”: Great Britain and Northern Ireland have been and still are united as one kingdom. While further federalisation almost certainly will a trigger a fresh debate on the future of British monarchy, the institution of a common head of state and the way in which this office is executed has – as evidenced by the development of the Commonwealth of Nations – an integrating effect. This is especially true for the UK countries, which form the “homeland” of a monarch still being the head of fourteen states, foremost Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

But if the UK does decides for fundamental constitutional change, the “State House” model might just work.


Christoph Smets is a Teaching Fellow/Senior Research Assistant at the Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf


Suggested citation: C. Smets, ‘A UK senate: Competition for the Commons or federalising representation?’ UK Const. L. Blog (1st December 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)


Filed under Comparative law, Constitutional reform

James Hand and Donal Coffey: Miliband’s senate of the regions and a constitutional convention conundrum

donalJamesHandEd Miliband’s recent proposal for ‘an elected Senate that properly represents the towns, cities, regions and nations that make up the United Kingdom’ included reference to a ‘UK-wide Constitutional Convention’.

There has, of late, been increased talk of a constitutional convention, fuelled particularly by the Scottish Referendum and the question of devolution (see, e.g., on this site blog posts by Cormac Mac Amhlaigh and Robert Hazell). Earlier this year, the Labour Peers Working Group proposed that there should be a convention to consider ‘the next steps on further reform of the House of Lords and any consequential impact on the House of Commons and on Parliament as a whole’ (para 3.14) but there was support for a wider constitutional convention when their report was debated in the House of Lords (for an earlier post on this see here). Ahead of the Labour Party conference, the day after the Scottish Referendum result, Ed Miliband announced that a full Constitutional Convention would be set up in 2015 to discuss further devolution and reform at Westminster. As noted above, his more recent announcement that the House of Lords should be replaced with a senate of the cities, regions and nations again refers to the ‘UK-wide Constitutional Convention’ but its role seems to have changed markedly in the six weeks between announcements. The proposal for such a senate was greeted with arguably unfair allegations of hypocrisy following Labour’s role in the demise of the Nick Clegg’s House of Lords Reform Bill 2012 but of greater concern is the premise behind the proposal and the role of the UK-wide Constitutional Convention.

In his announcement of a Constitutional Convention for the UK (two days before the Labour Party conference and some six weeks before his Senate announcement), Ed Miliband stated that the convention would not look solely at devolution matters but also ‘look at new ideas for representation including reforms at Westminster and the case for a Senate of the Nations and Regions’ (emphasis added). Within those six weeks, the role of the convention had gone from considering the wider constitutional position and the case for a senate as part of that to, as regards the legislature’s second chamber, working out the details of the prescribed ‘solution’ (the abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement with a senate) and how it might fit with further devolution. Under the original announcement, the convention would have considered whether the idea of such a senate was the best way forward in light of the whole evolving constitutional settlement and not be solely restricted to the details. The changing state of local government was enough for Harold Wilson to defer consideration of specific regional membership of the Lords in the 1968 White Paper (Cmnd. 3799, para 23). Ed Miliband – who places great emphasis on regional representation and representation from our ‘great cities’ at the same time as his local government spokesman talks of counties rather than regions – has, however, sought to determine the outcome for the second chamber before the devolution (and indeed the consequential powers of the House) has been considered by the convention he intends to set up.

In the debate on the 2012 Clegg Bill, Baroness Boothroyd, the widely respected former Speaker of the House of Commons, asked ‘in the simplest and most mundane terms that [she could] command: in what way would the nation benefit and parliamentary proceedings be enhanced by the abolition of this House of experts and experience, and its replacement by a senate of paid politicians?’ Judging from his recent announcement, Ed Miliband’s response today would be that there would be ‘greater representation for the regions’. In his speech he said ‘[i]t cannot be right that the North West has almost the same population as London but only a small fraction of London’s number of peers… London is our capital and one of the world’s great cities but it cannot be right London has more members of the House of Lords than the East Midlands, West Midlands, Wales, Northern Ireland, the North East and Yorkshire and Humber added together.’ No source is given but the wording is very similar to a 2008 analysis by the New Local Government Network (p.15). This report looked at main residences for expenses purposes and showed a heavy London/South East and rural bias. However, looking at residences is a very misleading approach. As the House of Lords Library Note on Regional Representation in the House of Lords notes, citing Russell & Benton, just because many members have a London home does not make the House ‘London-centric’, not least as if they are active members a base in the capital is sensible (p.8). Furthermore, people have other ties to areas such as where else they live and have lived or have worked. The Library note attempts to address this by looking at territorial designations within titles and this does show a much wider spread of locations with, for example, Greater Manchester and surrounding areas well served (p.14). This, too, however does not give a full picture as it excludes those peers who do not have a location in their title and the choice of title is only one facet of somebody’s ties. For example, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff took his title from his constituency but was born and educated in Portsmouth and later farmed in East Sussex.

It may be that the current proposal for the senate, and the emasculation of the convention, owes more to current political machinations than considered constitutional reform. It could be seen to form part of a broader Labour scheme to answer the West Lothian question without adopting the recommendations of the McKay Commission. This Commission proposed that decisions effecting England, or England and Wales, should be taken only with the consent of a majority of English, or English and Welsh, MPs (see further here). In contrast, the Labour proposals seek to devolve power to the English regions (howsoever defined), which would affect the McKay reasoning by fundamentally altering the relationship between Westminster and the English regions. Lords reform is the copestone to this devolution project. Ed Miliband’s progression from a possibility of Lords reform to be determined by a constitutional convention in the immediate aftermath of the Scottish referendum, to his determination that the convention would merely set out the terms of such reform may have been a response to David Cameron’s recent call for an English-centred settlement of the West Lothian question.

The proposed constitutional convention in the UK will be likely to draw on the parallel Irish constitutional convention which recently completed its work (see here). The terms of reference of the convention were drawn up in advance by the Government and, in that sense, the recent Labour proposals are arguably in line with the Irish model. The major notable failure in constitutional reform in Ireland since the establishment of the convention was the proposal by the Government to abolish the Senate. The 32nd Amendment to the Constitution Bill was defeated in a referendum. The question was not referred to the constitutional convention as it formed part of the programme for Government. A similarly pre-judged outcome may ultimately hole Labour’s devolution proposals below the waterline.

If a well-constituted constitutional convention, with power to look at the whole picture, concluded that a federal or quasi-federal system was appropriate, then there could be clear scope for the second chamber to be a House – or Senate – of the Regions. However, that is far from the case that Ed Miliband is now making. If he succeeds, the destruction of a highly respected second chamber (albeit one in need of evolutionary reform) on such flaky foundations could be highly detrimental to our legislature and the legislation it produces.


James Hand is an Associate Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth.

Donal Coffey is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth.


(Suggested citation: J. Hand and D. Coffey,‘Miliband’s senate of the regions and a constitutional convention conundrum.’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (23rd November 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).



Filed under Constitutional reform

James Hand: Lords response to Labour Peers’ Working Group Report – A Programme for Progress: The future of the House of Lords and its place in wider constitution.

James-Hand-140-x-150The House of Lords have recently debated the Labour Peers’ Working Group report looking at the future of the House of Lords and its place in a wider constitution. The report was published on 28th May 2014 and was generally well received by contributors from all sides during the 4 hour motion to take note. Lord Dubs, one of the authors, has set out the key conclusions of the working group here but in summary they seek to achieve in the interim a smaller House of Lords, limited to 450 members, ahead of a constitutional convention to decide on the future of the House of Lords and, potentially, other constitutional issues. The report also dealt with other matters such as recommending the final abolition of the remaining hereditary peers’ right to sit (in contradiction to the compromise in 1999 ‘binding in honour’ on those who assented that they should remain until the second and final stage of reform had taken place), ceasing to wear robes during introduction and some procedural reforms. This post, however, shall focus on two significant issues arising from the debate: the prospects for a convention and the division over the means for the reduction in the size of the House.

A constitutional convention

There has been much talk of a constitutional convention in Scotland should the Yes campaign win September’s referendum there (see e.g. Aileen McHarg’s and Katie Boyle’s blog posts) but regardless of the outcome of that referendum the constitutional position of the whole UK, and the House of Lords within it, is open to question following years of piecemeal constitutional reform. With one or two notable exceptions, there was general support among the speakers for the proposal that there should be a convention.

While the report limited the scope of the proposed convention to considering ‘the next steps on further reform of the House of Lords and any consequential impact on the House of Commons and on Parliament as a whole’ (para 3.14), some speakers took a wider approach. Lord Gordon of Strathblane, for example, endorsed the idea but held that the way European legislation was dealt with and the operation of the House of Commons would be higher up the list for consideration by such a body and Lord Norton of Louth, who had previously argued for one before with a different scope, considered that we need one ‘to help us make sense of where we are, and not necessarily to tell us where we should be going—Parliament can decide that once we have a much clearer appreciation of where we are in terms of the structures and relationships that form our constitution’ (at col 952). Only two peers from some 40 peers who spoke, expressed opposition: Lord Stephen questioned whether any convention could come up with any new answers about the Lords and Lord Howarth of Newport thought that the political parties should distance themselves but that the process ‘might valuably be undertaken by academics and think tanks, which could elucidate the issues and offer useful ideas.’ He further stated that a ‘royal commission, or a commission or convention, will get things wrong… [w]hat they recommend will be found not to work’ before going on to note to the shortcomings of the US Constitution and the 1990s Scottish Constitutional Convention (at col 959).

Significantly, both front benches spoke positively of a wider convention. Lord Hunt of King’s Heath, for the Opposition, noted that not ‘all noble Lords are in favour of such a proposal, but we cannot consider Lords reform in isolation from the many other pressing issues that we face in relation to the constitution, not least, as [Lord Maxton] said, in today’s era of new technologies, and also, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said, in view of young people’s disengagement from politics’ (cols. 983-984). For the Government, Lord Wallace of Saltaire went further:

The case for a commission or convention is out there. There was an excellent report by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee last year which suggested that the Government have no view on this issue at present. However, personally and as a Minister, this is a question that we ought to be debating in the last year of this Parliament. I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others are doing. It is one that we all need to consider because we need to look at how all of this runs together. (col. 987)

That is not say that a convention will be immediately forthcoming as time is too short to define what is sought before the election, but that the topic of a convention is, to quote Lord Wallace, ‘precisely the sort of thing’ that could usefully be considered in the last year of a fixed-term parliament which could then be taken forward by the next government. A constitutional convention for the UK (or rest of the UK) can thus be seen to be more likely than it has been in the past.

Reducing the size of the House

There was broad agreement that the House of Lords needed to be smaller and, with one exception, that it should be smaller than the House of Commons. The Act passed in the last session (colloquially termed the Norton-Steel-Byles Act) sought to reduce membership through expulsion due to criminal offence, voluntary resignation and removing those who failed to attend any sitting during a session (the first of which is in force now and the latter two due to come into force this summer). The report proposed a more drastic threshold of 60% of sittings in a session (which they curiously refer to as an average (at para 8.11)), unless there are exceptional circumstances, and a compulsory retirement for all those who reached the age of 80 in the preceding session (at paras 8.5-8.6).

To have an arbitrary age limit cut-off is inherently discriminatory – in another context it has been described as ‘the statutory age of senility’ – and the justification is slight. Its proponents describe it as the least worst alternative. However, there was support by a number of peers for an evolution of the process that saw the hereditary peers whittled down (attributed to Billy Bragg by the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill and as, for example, written about here). Each Parliament, the parties could determine how many peers each should have (possibly based on the general or other election results, either by each election or through using a rolling average) and then elect or select within themselves which peers should remain. Lord Norton of Louth when preferring such a scheme to an arbitrary age limit noted that it ‘would enable the issue of overall size, as well as party balance, to be addressed effectively’ (col. 952). Lord Haskell appeared to prefer a one-off repeat of the Weatherill hereditary peer reduction followed by a formula allowing new peers to be allocated between the parties and the cross-benches (col 980). The proposal fared less well on the front benches. Lord Hunt of Kings Heath drew an unflattering comparison with the hereditary by-elections (where there are sometimes more candidates than remaining peers to act as electors, particularly with regard to the Labour hereditaries) and considered that the cut-off at the age of 80 was the least worst option (col. 983). Lord Wallace of Saltaire pictured ‘a wonderful series of bloodlettings within each of the two groups’ (seemingly forgetting about the Liberal Democrats and others) but, when challenged by the Earl of Sandwich, acknowledged that it was ‘one way of addressing the question of topping up after the election’ (cols 988-989).

In seeking to dismiss the concept of a modified-Weatherill approach to the question of the numbers of sitting life peers (either as a one-off or occurring each Parliament), the frontbench spokesmen appear to have overlooked a number of issues. Lord Hunt was concerned that a system that sought to replicate the general election results would be a strange basis for a distinct House. However, he fails to take account of a sizeable presence of cross-benchers (fixed in one version of the proposal at 20%) which would automatically render the make-up of the House different from the Commons. Furthermore, a system of rolling averages – to avoid temporary blips in electoral support being reflected in the less democratic, less powerful, more reflective House – could be used if a longer term view was sought or, to reflect the differences in different elections, a formula comprising local and European results instead or as well could be adopted. While such a system to reduce the peers – and in the Norton, if not Haskell formulation, keep the number in regular (and reasonably proportional) check – is derived from the Weatherill reduction of peers, to disparage it based on the hereditary peer by-elections is to ignore the differences in size of much of the electorate (there are, for example, over 200 Labour life peers (and nearly 100 Lib Dems) but they have only four sitting hereditary peers each). What would take place would not be a ‘blood-letting’ in Lord Wallace’s words but a pruning (or re-potting if former peers returned following a change in the political wind) which could take account of the age and past attendance but would do so in the round and not as an arbitrary cut-off. Such a system would allow peers to emulate the now late Lord Wilberforce, who regularly attended over 100 times a year, even when in his mid 90s, if they had valuable contributions to make while allowing others to retire if they so wished or to take a sabbatical and return if there was sufficient support amongst their colleagues. Only if there had been a large number of appointments during a session (which could be prevented by a statutory appointments commission) or there had been a radical change in support would there ever likely be a sizeable change in membership (which would be further reduced by both the option of retirement and the inevitability of death).

There seems to be near universal agreement that the House of Lords’ size needs to be constrained, not least as the risk now looms large of a ballooning house if new appointments are made to reflect changing strength in the Commons looms (as predicted by Robert Hazell & Ben Seyd and Meg Russell) even if there is not unanimity about the actual size. It would, on the precedent of the Weatherill amendment, only take a small change to legislation to bring about a system of indirect election as mooted by Lord Norton of Louth which would retain much of the existing strengths (and membership) of the House and which could act to prevent chamber-hopping (see e.g. Meg Russell’s piece from March) and allow more time for a wider-ranging constitutional convention to take place.


James Hand is an Associate Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth

(Suggested citation: J. Hand, ‘Lords response to Labour Peers’ Working Group Report – A Programme for Progress: The future of the House of Lords and its place in wider constitution’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (29th June 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).


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Filed under Constitutional reform, UK Parliament

Mike Gordon: Time for a Citizens’ Assembly on Lords Reform?

After the collapse of the coalition government’s House of Lords Reform Bill in August, the UK Parliament’s upper chamber remains resolutely unreformed.  The substance of this most recent attempt to complete the process of reform which commenced with the first Parliament Act in 1911 has been examined in detail by a Joint Committee on the Draft Bill, in recent contributions to this blog, and elsewhere.  For some, although certainly not all, the demise of the Bill is not to be lamented, yet the reasons for this vary substantially.  Almost every element of the Bill has been criticised by someone, somewhere, with it being surprisingly difficult to identify a key overriding deficiency of the proposed reform (although clause 2, which provided that nothing in the Bill would affect the primacy of the House of Commons is perhaps the leading contender for most frequently considered flaw).  The failure of this attempt at reform thus had an air of inevitability about it, fulfilling the prophecies of the many commentators who confidently predicted that the Bill would not attract sufficient support to progress through Parliament.

The primary purpose of this post is not, however, to reconsider the merits and/or demerits of the Reform Bill.  The innovations proposed in the Bill have already been thoroughly evaluated, perhaps with the exception of the sheer length of time the government’s reform plan would have taken to implement, with three new intakes of elected members envisaged over the course of three general elections.  Indeed, a staggered transition to the new arrangements, with reform of the Lords potentially incomplete until 2025, would in my view have engendered unnecessary uncertainty in relation to the legitimacy of the interim chamber(s), and unduly delayed the development of a distinct political culture and working practices appropriate to the reconfigured house.  And, of course, a three stage process would have left future governments with two convenient opportunities to ‘pause’ reform prior to its conclusion, potentially transforming interim arrangements into a more enduring state of affairs as is almost traditional in relation to the Lords.

Nevertheless, the purpose of this post is to suggest a way forward.  While it has been argued that this most recent proposal represented a once in a generation chance to reform the House of Lords, this seems likely to have been rhetoric rather than reality.  Lords reform has already proved to be an issue of remarkable resilience, remaining a matter of debate for over a century.  All three major UK political parties now accept that the Lords is in need of reform, and committed to bringing about change in their 2010 manifestos (distinguishing this issue markedly, for example, from the also failed attempts to reform the voting system for elections to the House of Commons).  Further, the possibility of Lords reform being re-employed as a bargaining chip between potential coalition partners cannot be discounted.  This is especially the case in an era when a pluralist approach to politics, filtered through a first-past-the-post voting system designed to cater for two parties, leaves the prospect of future hung parliaments more rather than less likely.

Yet even if a need for reform of some kind is accepted in principle, have politicians, academics and other interested parties reached the point of fatigue with respect to the detail of reform of the House of Lords?  The volume of material produced might suggest not, yet as the failed proposals, committee reports, and academic commentaries mount up, it becomes ever more difficult to see how progress which is satisfactory to a large enough contingent can be achieved.  Appeals to international experience cannot in and of themselves offer a clear way forward, due to the diversity evident when the composition and powers of elected second chambers around the world are compared.  How might we move, then, from the wealth of solutions that we presently have, to decide definitively how to put the upper house in order?

One way in which this objective might be achieved is to focus on the methodology of constitutional reform, rather than the substance of the reform itself.  In circumstances of disagreement about the desirability of competing visions of a reconfigured House of Lords, the major political parties could together commit to resolve this disagreement by democratic means.  The Joint Committee on the Draft Bill proposed that a shift to an elected House of Lords was of such constitutional significance as to require that a referendum be held to approve the change.  Yet the three main political parties could go further, and commit to convene a citizens’ assembly after the next general election to settle the issue of Lords reform decisively.

Citizens’ assemblies have been used in a number of countries in recent years to assess options for specific constitutional reforms, and make recommendations which can then be put to the general public for further consideration, and potentially, approval at a referendum.  Citizens’ assemblies were established in Canada to consider electoral reform at a provincial level, in British Columbia in 2004 and Ontario in 2006, with referendums subsequently held (two in the case of British Columbia) giving the electorate the opportunity to accept or reject the assemblies’ proposals.  The Canadian assemblies were comprised of citizens selected at random from the electoral register, with adequate representation of geographical regions, men and women, and aboriginal people ensured.  Further, at a national level, a Civic Forum on electoral reform was convened in the Netherlands in 2006, which was also composed of randomly selected citizens.  This Civic Forum was, however, tasked with making recommendations to the Dutch government, rather than directly to the people via a referendum, in contrast with the two Canadian assemblies (on these citizens’ assemblies generally see G. Smith, Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation (CUP: 2009), Ch 3).

Similar methodology is also imminently to be used in Ireland, where a constitutional convention, with two-thirds of the members to be citizens selected at random, is to be established to consider a number of specific constitutional issues (including the reduction of the Presidential term of office to five years, reducing the voting age to 17, and reviewing the Dáil electoral system) and report to the Houses of the Oireachtas.  Interestingly, for present purposes, the convention will not consider reform of the Irish Seanad, with a referendum on abolition of the upper house instead to be held in the latter half of 2013.

Finally, and most boldly, in Iceland citizens were chosen to form a Constitutional Council to draft a new revised constitution for the state in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.  Following a larger National Assembly held in 2010, which involved a significant number of randomly selected citizens reflecting on the core values underpinning the Icelandic constitutional settlement, a smaller group of 25 citizens were tasked with producing a new constitution, relying extensively on the internet to canvass the views of members of the wider public.  These citizens were selected originally via an election to a Constitutional Assembly, distinguishing this example from those considered above, but this was subsequently invalidated by the Icelandic Supreme Court on technical grounds, leading to the formal appointment by the government of the same ‘elected’ individuals to a Constitutional Council (on the process of reform in Iceland generally see T. Gylfason, ‘From Collapse to Constitution: The Case of Iceland’ CESIFO Working Paper No. 3770, June 2012, at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2034241).  Having been considered by Althingi, the Icelandic Parliament, six questions relating to the draft constitution will now be put to a referendum of the people of Iceland in a matter of days, on 20th October 2012.

This necessarily brief sketch is intended simply to demonstrate that citizens’ assemblies (whether comprising of members selected at random or by election) can be, and increasingly have been, employed to consider both specific and general constitutional conundrums.  Such assemblies can be tasked with assessing a variety of alternative solutions, drawing on appropriate expert support and the views of the general public, and ultimately making recommendations for evaluation and approval in the polity at large.  The virtues of such citizen-led deliberation are that it enables a broader range of perspectives to be considered in a public space designed for informed reflection, while enhancing the authority and legitimacy of the proposals developed, which are untainted by any general disillusionment with professional politicians.  As such, and perhaps crucially in relation to the problem of the House of Lords, a citizens’ assembly could be used to bypass deadlock or intransigence among political elites, and provide fresh impetus for constitutional reform.

Of course, the utility of citizens’ assemblies should not at this stage be overstated; they are not necessarily a panacea for all constitutional ills, and while such mechanisms have obvious classical democratic origins, are only gradually re-emerging as a tool which can be used for the implementation of contemporary constitutional reform.  Further, the use of a citizens’ assembly to develop proposals for reform does not guarantee that successful reform will actually be the result, as the Canadian examples clearly demonstrate.  In light of this, the result of the imminent Icelandic referendum will be of great interest to those who find the idea of citizens’ assemblies attractive in principle.

Nonetheless, in relation to Lords reform in the UK, a citizens’ assembly could potentially offer a very useful democratic solution to a problem politicians have been unable to resolve, as well as a normatively appealing way of increasing popular engagement with constitutional issues in its own right.  And if the key objection to the continued existence of the House of Lords is its undemocratic nature, it would be apt for the future of the upper chamber to be settled by a group of UK citizens, potentially subject to the approval of the entire electorate at a referendum.  The time seems right for the UK to experiment with such an approach to constitutional change, and convene a citizens’ assembly to try to solve the problem of Lords reform once and for all.

Dr Mike Gordon is Lecturer in Public Law at the Liverpool Law School, University of Liverpool.

Suggested citation: M. Gordon, ‘Time for a Citizens’ Assembly on Lords Reform?’   UK Const. L. Blog (17th October 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

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Filed under Comparative law, Constitutional reform, UK Parliament

Dawn Oliver: Response to Gavin Phillipson on Lords Reform

I feel as bit as if I have been run over by a bulldozer after reading Gavin Phillipson’s blog about House of Lords reform. It assumes that all opponents of the Government bill on Lords Reform are unthinking and /or stupid. Given that some very eminent commentators without political axes to grind as well as some sensible politicians – and there are some! – opposed the proposals, this does not seem to me to be a convincing starting point.

Let us remember just a few basic points.

  1. Most other countries with second chambers are federal: the members of their second chambers represent the members of the federation and have particular responsibilities for protecting and representing the interests of the states in the federation as set out in their Constitutions. This is not the position in the UK.
  2. Comparisons with other countries with elected second chambers can only take us so far: they all have written constitutions, most of which give their courts or court-like bodies (unelected of course, but legitimate) the power to decide, post-legislatively, upon the constitutionality of laws passed by their legislatures, and indeed in many cases to consider and make recommendations by way of ‘preview’ about the quality of drafting, the evidence base for policy proposals etc.
  3. In the absence of such extra-parliamentary checks, the UK relies strongly on intra-parliamentary ones: the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the House of Lords Constitution Committee, the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, the Merits Committee and others do these jobs very well. This is because of the kinds of people who are members of these committees.
  4. I do not believe that enough elected members of a reformed second chamber would be as good at these very important functions as current members of the House of Lords engaged in this work are.
  5. The parties are likely to choose as their candidates those with political records e.g. in local and regional/national government, not people with the experience needed for these functions.
  6. And I do not believe that 20% appointed members could be counted on to do the job as well or have the same influence on its doing as current cross benchers.
  7. The combination of elected and appointed members proposed in the draft bill would not produce a system of scrutiny and checks on government as good as or better than the present arrangements as they operate in practice.
  8. Thus going over to a largely elected composition in the second chamber risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
  9. So comparisons with other countries, though superficially attractive, can be misleading.
  10. These points do not imply that the present arrangements in our second chamber are satisfactory. The House of Lords is far too large, the continuation of hereditary members is completely inappropriate, appointments are made in exercises of unregulated patronage by the Prime Minister and leaders of the parties, and many members of those appointed do not have useful experience or expertise to bring to the work done in the chamber. Unless and until the House becomes elected these matters ought as a matter of urgency to be rectified.
  11. One solution might be for the UK to adopt a written constitution that would (i) enable a court or courts to take on the function of constitutional scrutiny of bills or Acts, (ii) establish a body akin to the French Conseil d’état that would scrutinise bills for drafting etc and (iii) put in place an elected second chamber.
  12. But adoption of a written constitution for the UK is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. As Sebastian Payne argued in his recent blog, the time is not ripe.
  13. Meanwhile reform of the devil we know that works well is preferable to replacing it with a devil we do not know that might look like an angel but be unable to carry out the functions which need to be done within Parliament as they cannot be done elsewhere under our current arrangements.

Dawn Oliver is Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law at University College London. 

 Suggested citation: D. Oliver, ‘Response to Gavin Phillipson on Lords Reform’ UK Const. L. Blog (26th September 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org


Filed under Constitutional reform, UK Parliament

Gavin Phillipson: Lords Reform: why opponents of the Government Bill were wrong

So the attempt to bring long-overdue comprehensive reform to our second chamber has failed. The plan for an 80% elected, 20% appointed House, with the hereditary rump removed and Prime Ministerial patronage ended, has been defeated. Leaving aside the purely party political factors that contributed to this outcome, I think we can identify two key reasons why Conservative MPs in particular refused to support the Bill: first, simple “small c conservatism”, manifested on this occasion in the “principle of unripe time” variant so nicely dissected by Sebastian Payne last week on this blog; second, simple parochialism: the deployment of arguments against reform that wholly failed to take account of the experience of other countries – a tendency that was present not only in the views of politicians, but of many of the academic commentators as well, including, alas, on this blog.

The key argument for democratic reform

The main arguments in favour of democratic reform are simple and have been made many times: that the House of Lords exercises real legislative power, which should flow from a democratic mandate, rather than Prime Ministerial patronage and hereditary entitlement. At present, our second chamber has an effective “electorate” of a mere handful of people, something that should be considered indefensible. A linked argument, often overlooked, but almost as important, is more practical: that, while the Lords has a real effect on legislation, much of its excellent policy work, including its proposed revisions to legislation, currently goes to waste because of its perceived lack of legitimacy; its amendments can be, and often are, swatted aside by governments and MPs on this basis. The sweeping assertion of Commons “financial privilege” to allow the rejection without consideration of whole swathes of painstakingly debated Lords’ amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill (considered on this blog recently by Jeff King) was only the most recent and drastic example of this well known tendency. While Donald Shell probably goes too far in saying that the UK has for some time been working under a system of “de facto unicameralism”  (‘The Future of the Second Chamber’ (2004) 57(4) Parlt. Aff. 852, 855), he is right to emphasise the emasculated role of the Lords, deriving mainly from the conventional limits upon its powers, which stem in turn from its perceived lack of legitimacy. It is a commonplace that our constitution lacks the formal checks and balances that other democracies have and, as a result (many believe) still suffers from an over-mighty Executive, able to secure the passage of most of its legislation, however draconian or ill-conceived. The argument then is that we need a more legitimate and therefore more powerful upper chamber with the confidence to make much fuller use of its existing powers to amend or delay legislation where it considers that the government needs to think again (see e.g. the evidence of Dr Renwick to the Joint Committee on the Draft Bill, para 56). As the Public Administration Select Committee argued in a powerful report back in 2002, “second chamber reform is … about strengthening Parliament as a wholein relation to an executive that is uniquely powerful in the British system” (Fifth Report of 2001-2002, hereafter, ‘PAC’). I also believe that the Government (and the PAC) were right to propose a majority-elected House rather than a fully elected chamber; I have made that case elsewhere (‘Solving the second chamber paradox’ (2004) PL 352), and do not repeat it here. Instead I examine the main arguments against the proposed reform, those which carried the day.

The main bogeymen: Commons “primacy” and gridlock.

This was perhaps the main argument against the Bill, expressed over and over again by Conservative MPs and others: that reform of the second chamber would “threaten the primacy of the Commons” and lead to gridlock, because a reformed chamber, no longer hamstrung by its lack of legitimacy, would use its legal powers far more fully than at present. This argument was repeated so often that we have become used to it, but when one stands back and thinks about, it is really quite extraordinary: essentially the contention is that we should keep the Lords as it is precisely because of its lack of legitimacy, which allows the Commons routinely to override it, thus preserving its “primacy” and preventing gridlock. It is evident that some means of preventing endless partisan struggles between the two chambers of the legislature is needed. But the current system – using the acknowledged lack of legitimacy of one House in order to make it too hesitant to use regularly the powers that it has – is an extraordinarily crude and wrong-headed way to achieve this result. No-one would propose a deliberately illegitimate chamber as part of a new constitutional settlement in a democracy. The passionate defence of the current House by so many merely illustrates once again what has been called the astonishing power of the actual.

But of course the argument is also flawed and exaggerated even in its own terms. Let us deal first with the endlessly-repeated fear that a democratic Lords would “threaten the primacy of the Commons”. Exactly what this meant was never fully explained but the basic argument is quite evidently wrong. The Commons’ “primacy” – meaning its status as the foremost chamber – is secured by a number of factors. The most important of these are: the Parliament Acts, which legally limits the powers of the Lords; the fact that only the Commons can vote supply, and that only the Commons can throw out a government, through a motion of no confidence and bring about an early General Election (under the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011). All of these factors would remain after reform (if necessary, legislation could specifically state that the Parliament Acts applied to the new House). Moreover, the combination of rolling replacement of its membership with long terms of office in the upper chamber – meaning that the Commons could always claim the fresher mandate – plus the 20% appointed element, would stop the Lords claiming primacy even in terms of democratic legitimacy. The “primacy” point, then, is simply misconceived.

The fear of “gridlock” is the weaker and more rational, but still exaggerated version of this argument. Undoubtedly, as the Joint Committee observed (para 34), a reformed House would use its legal powers more, to an extent that we cannot predict with certainty. At least some of the conventions currently restraining it would drop away, or weaken. While the Lords would still be legally subordinate to the Commons, and have less of a democratic mandate, the Upper House would become more powerful in practice. It is curious, however, that this is so often characterised as a negative factor, given that ensuring a more powerful second chamber is one of the main arguments in favour of reform. What would be the consequences of a more assertive Lords? Assuming that no party ordinarily had a majority in the second chamber (a crucial condition for reform) it would mean that governments would have to negotiate and sometimes compromise in order to get their legislation through it, although presumably some version of the Salisbury convention in relation to manifesto Bills could be retained. Would this be so bad? Russell’s research clearly indicates that, while Government control of the second chamber can render it too weak and Opposition control too likely to result in deadlock with the first chamber, the option of no overall control is “the most effective option”, because a House “controlled by forces independent of government can help create a form of consensus politics which results in better political outcomes in the longer term.” (Reforming the Lords: Lessons from Overseas (OUP, 2000), (hereafter ‘LFO’) at 299 and 164). So where the government had a policy that was manifesto-mandated, or had cross-party support, or was very popular (such that the parties felt it imprudent to oppose it) it would still be able to get its legislation through, without much difficulty. But where both opposition parties opposed it, and the government could not convince the independent peers to support it, it would either have to wait a year and then use the Parliament Acts, or make concessions. Given that a non-manifesto policy opposed by both other parties would typically be one that was at best notionally supported by only around the 40-odd per cent of the electorate who voted for the government, it is not clear why this would be such a bad thing.

Such arguments, however, got little airing in the Lords reform debate. More opposition from the Lords was considered to be self-evidently bad, because it would inevitably lead to “gridlock” – again, not a term that was generally explained, but one which sounded like the government’s whole legislative programme being brought to a juddering halt.  That this would be the result of a more democratic Lords was indeed generally presented as a plain fact; thus Tory MP Nick Soames said, “The inevitable result of [the reform] will be gridlock and constitutional crisis” (Telegraph, 9 July 2012), while Vernon Bogdanor stated bluntly that “The upper House would become an opposing rather than a revising chamber” (JC Report, para 30).  Such statements however, are not factual propositions, but speculative conjectures and not ones supported by the overseas evidence. And it is here that the debate was at its most frustrating.

Meg Russell at the UCL Constitution Unit has done extensive and excellent research in this area, including in her Lessons from Overseas book (and see her evidence to the Joint Committee). And yet time after time, politicians, academics and pundits felt able to confidently to pronounce on what would happen in a system where the second chamber was largely or wholly elected, without citing even a jot of the widely available evidence which, broadly speaking, serves to refute the “gridlock” fear.  As the PAC crisply put it in its 2002 report: “Three quarters of the 64 bicameral legislature around the world have largely or wholly elected second chambers, and very few suffer from … difficulties [of gridlock]”. Countries which actually do at times suffer from legislative deadlock, such as the United States or Australia, have systems in which the two houses are co-equal, there being no mechanism like the Parliament Acts which allow one simply to override the other, or ones like Japan, in which a “super-majority” in the first chamber is needed to bypass opposition in the second. If the electoral system allows the Opposition to have a majority in the second chamber – as can happen in both the US and Australia – this also tends to aggravate the problem.   (The latter point is one reason why the principle of “no overall” control in the second chamber has commanded widespread acceptance for some time, and hence why (as the Government rightly proposed) the second chamber must use some form of PR for its electoral system). In other words, those countries with elected second chambers that do suffer from deadlock have quite different constitutional setups from the UK’s. However, many contributors to the debate appeared to feel no need to deal with the fact that the overseas evidence either did not support, or even contradicted the predictions they so confidently made. With respect, the same thing may be said about the comments of Nick Barber and Danny Nicol on this blog that adding democracy to the Lords would not enhance democracy in the UK because, if there are too many elected bodies “citizens will become uncertain about which bodies they should engage with, and may tire of the process.” One might expect at least a nod to the fact that a very large number of democracies have some form of elected second chambers; acknowledgment perhaps of a need to inquire whether the citizens of such democracies really are confused by this and therefore less engaged citizens.  Must the solution to this alleged problem really be an undemocratic chamber of Parliament?

The Lords does not need democratic legitimacy for the kind of work it does

This is one of the more subtle arguments against democratic reform of the second chamber. In its cruder forms, it rests on a straightforward misrepresentation of the work the Lords actually does, as when the Daily Telegraph claimed that, “The purpose of the Upper House is not to make law, but to ensure that the power of the elected chamber is kept in check and its legislation properly scrutinised” and that it was “a revising chamber devoid of legislative authority”. Such claims are simply false – and internally contradictory to boot: how does the Lords “keep in check” the power of the Commons except by revising – that is, amending its legislation – and by doing so, make law? With slightly more plausibility, it is sometimes instead said that the Lords are not “legislators” but “revisers of legislation, a task that does not require election to confer legitimacy.” One might dismiss such objections as pure conservative propaganda, until we note that similar things were said by Professor Sir John Baker of Cambridge University, who in evidence to the Joint Committee argued that the House of Lord’s role “does not require the sanction of the ballot box to give it legitimacy any more than the judicial role because the House of Commons can insist on the last word” (Report, para 18).

There are several possible arguments mixed up here, and they need to be teased out. Some appear to rest on the notion that “revising” legislation is just “scrutinising” it, which doesn’t require democratic legitimacy. Hence one parliamentarian argued that “The upper House is…like an audit commission examining legislation passed by Parliament…Selecting people to perform a scrutiny or audit role is very different from selecting people to produce legislation, or determine public policy and the shape of a Government (HC, Deb, col. 244, (January 21, 2003).  But this is a simple misstatement of the role of the Lords: select committees, academics, lobby groups, NGOs etc all scrutinise legislation, but only the House of Lords gets to change it.

In the face of this obvious fact, the argument sometimes changes to one a little closer to reality: that, while the Lords proposes changes to legislation, it always defers if the Commons doesn’t agree. This casts the Lords as some kind of advisory body, tentatively proffering its views on legislation, but immediately backing down if the government or the Commons doesn’t like them. As one peer put it, “when the Commons disagrees with our view, we always recognise, with no argument, that it has been elected and we have not, and we surrender”. (HL col. 666, (January 21, 2003 (Baroness Knight)). Similarly, a cross bencher, Lord Karkkhar recently argued that the current House “ultimately and always” bows to the “primacy” of the Commons.  However, it is simply not the case that while the Commons legislates, the Lords merely proposes revisions. The Lords does what the Commons does: it doesn’t create legislation (private members Bills aside), rather it assents to government Bills and amends them. The difference of course, is that the Lords amends legislation against the wishes of the government quite frequently, whereas the Commons does so extremely rarely. It was pointed out during debates on Lords Reform under Blair that of the first 639 whipped votes held under that government, the Lords defeated the government in 164 of them, that is, one in four.  Most recently, in the 2010-12 session the Lords inflicted 48 legislative defeats on the government,  compared to none in the Commons.  Of course the Lords  often give way, if their amendments are rejected by the Commons even once, but, in some cases, they do not, and pressure of time then forces the government to accept them. As Lord Forsyth put it: “People believe that this House has no powers, but it has the power to bring the whole of the Government’s programme to a halt if it chooses to do so” (HL Deb, col.244, (January 21, 2003). The Lords is therefore a more active legislative body than the Commons. And it is also not the case that Lords’ amendments are invariably concerned only with drafting or technical aspects (therefore not requiring democratic legitimacy). Well known examples from the last ten years or so of legislation in relation to which important legislative changes were forced upon governments by the Lords include: the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999,  the Mode of Trial Bill (2000), the 2001 and 2005 Terrorism Bills and the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill 2006.  The Lords’ insistence in 2007 upon the extension of the new offence of corporate manslaughter to include prison and police officers was another notable example: this amendment of principle was rejected four times by the Commons and Government but finally forced upon them by the Lords (Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill 2007).  And the Lords has continued its active role since the Coalition Government came to power: well known examples include the marathon struggle over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill and changes made to the Legal Aid and Health and Social Care Bills.  The Constitution Unit furnishes many other examples from the last seven years.

Once this is accepted, it becomes clear that the actual work of the Lords requires democratic legitimacy. Any body of “wise persons”,  academics, NGOs, professional organisations etc, could set themselves up into an advisory body and scrutinise government Bills, suggesting amendments to it. Many such bodies in effect do this, when they comment on Green or White Papers, or even draft legislation. This is of course a useful process. However, were such a body suddenly to announce that it had the right to reject or change provisions in legislation carried by the Commons–an absolute right in the case of secondary legislation—there would naturally be an outcry at its illegitimate arrogation of legislative power. Such a body would have no more right to alter legislation than the law school of which I am a member would have the right to amend a Criminal Justice Bill, claiming as its legitimacy to do so, the undoubted collective expertise and independence of its members.

The final variant of the argument considered here is the comparison of the current House of Lords with the judges: both, it is said, are not elected, and yet both wield considerable powers over legislation; since we accept one, we should accept the other (see e.g. the recent comments of Professor Baker above). This argument is flawed because it pays no regard to the quite different roles of the judges and that of the second chamber of Parliament. In comparison with the enormous and possibly still legally unlimited power wielded by Parliament, the judicial branch exercises only a relatively narrow band of power, which is ultimately either given to it by Parliament (in the case of statutory interpretation) or confined to issues that Parliament has acquiesced in leaving in judicial hands (the common law). Even in relation to their extensive powers under the Human Rights Act (HRA), the courts remain bound by unambiguous incompatible primary legislation; importantly also, these powers were explicitly given to the courts by Parliament and may be removed by simple repeal of the HRA. Moreover, in making their decisions, judges are not called upon to exercise their own unconfined judgment, still less their party-political views. They are not asked to decide, de novo, what they think best for society. The House of Lords as a legislative body is, precisely, asked to do this: to bring peers’ individual political views to bear upon issues such as foundation hospitals, fox-hunting, liability of the police for corporate manslaughter, cuts to legal aid and changes to the governance and structure of the NHS. Peers thus exercise political power in a quite different way from the judiciary: they are asked to offer a view on the same issues as the Commons, issues that are the routine stuff of political conflict.

The hybrid nonsense.

Nick Barber suggests that hybrid models in general are of a “low standard” and some hostility towards the proposed hybrid model in the Bill was evident during the reform debate. Such arguments fall into two main strands considered below.

“Hybridity is incoherent”

The first main argument against hybridity is the so-called “Strathclyde paradox (after Lord Strathclyde, former Conservative Leader in the Lords): “If election is so good, why should the public not elect all our Members? If it is bad, why elect any at all?” This piece of schoolboy logic has gained considerable support.  Lord Cunningham’s evidence to the Joint Committee was to this effect, arguing against what he termed the “the muddle in the middle”: “You cannot be half democratic. You have to be either democratic or not” (para 96). Such arguments are flawed because they rests upon the false premise that electing members is straightforwardly either good or bad. But reform of the Lords must be judged against more than one criterion. Russell’s study of second chambers overseas led her to propose three crucial factors (LFO, pp. 163-164 and 250-254), which were adopted by the PAC in its 2002 report: distinct composition; perceived legitimacy; adequate powers. Parliament’s previous Joint Committee on Lords Reform expounded the distinct composition point to include principles of no domination by one party, (relative) independence from party and technical expertise of the sort that the current House offers ((H.L. 17 H.C. 171 (2002-03), para 3). If these are borne in mind, it becomes apparent that election to the second chamber has some advantages and some drawbacks. Election is “good” in terms of legitimacy: if there were to be no elected members, this would prevent the House from having sufficient democratic legitimacy to assert itself effectively against the Executive-dominated Commons. But the issue does not rest solely upon legitimacy. Once we recall the “distinctiveness” factors just noted, we can see why we might not want all the chamber’s members to be elected, desirable though this would be in terms of legitimacy. Such a course of action would preclude the appointment of non-politicians to the House, who would add expertise, independence and thus distinctive value to it. Having different classes of members – in other words a hybrid House – ensures that these different requirements can all be met.  In contrast, the so-called Strathclyde paradox only has any force if it is assumed that reform of the Lords is to be judged by one criterion alone.

“Hybridity would be unstable”

The other objection, originally voiced by Vernon Bogdanor, was that a House with a mixture of unelected and elected members would be unstable, with the unelected members being stigmatised (“who elected you”?) if they frustrated the will of the elected ((Reform of the House of Lords: a Sceptical View’ (1999) 70(4) Political Quarterly 375).  Fortunately, this argument now appears to be losing traction: it did not appear to trouble the Joint Committee unduly, and indeed, clearly has little force in a chamber with 80% elected members, who could never be outvoted by the unelected members. (This did not stop Lord Cormack complaining mysteriously to the Joint Committee that the Government’s Bill “would create a situation where the will of the elected could be frustrated by the non-elected” (para 96), without explaining how the 20% appointed membership could outvote the 80% elected). Unelected members would have to side with elected members in order to win a vote so there would never be a clear division between the two groups. In the odd instance in which the votes of appointees acted as a tie-breaker as between the votes of the divided political members, the public would probably view with relief the sight of the squabbling parties having the issue resolved by the dispassionate intervention of independent experts. Russell finds little or evidence either from overseas or the current Lords that having a mixed membership in this way would cause problems (JC, para 105).  Again, however, such evidence was rarely cited. Instead, parochialism reigned, and Lords reform once again languishes in the long grass.

The writer gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Reform of the House of Lords. 

Gavin Phillipson is a Professor of Law at Durham University.

 Suggested citation: G. Phillipson, ‘Lords Reform: why opponents of the Government Bill were wrong’ UK Const. L. Blog (26th September 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).


Filed under Constitutional reform, UK Parliament

Nick Barber: House of Lords Reform: A Look in the Long Grass.

The fall of the Coalition’s proposals for reform of the House of Lords has not come as much of a surprise.  In terms of constitutional reform, the House of Lords has graduated from a running sore to a running joke.  Constitutional lawyers can barely muster the strength to read the latest in the never-ending cycle of soon-to-be-defeated proposals.

That is not to say that the apparent death of the Draft Bill should be regretted.  Like all recent attempts to reform the Lords, it proposed a combination of elected and appointed members.  But even by the low standards of hybrid models, it was a particular stinker of a proposal.   There was plenty to object to in the Bill.

The process by which the members of the Lords would have been elected was complicated and opaque.  Voters could choose between voting for an independent candidate, or for a party, or for a party candidate.  The constituencies would have very large – perhaps dividing the country into twelve or so units – and multiple members would have represented each territory.  The system by which the votes cast would have translated into representatives was far from simple. To add to the complexity, a different electoral system would have applied to Northern Ireland, and a further, distinct, mechanism would have been invoked when a vacancy arose.

The appointed element would have consisted of not one but three separate categories.  There would have been regular appointees, Bishops, and ministerial members.  The inclusion of Bishops in the proposal was surprising.  Predictably, the mechanism by which Bishops would gain admissions to the Lords was convoluted.  Five Bishops got to sit as of right, but another seven would have been selected by the Church – presumably through a process to be determined by some Synod or other.  This statutory restraint is curious: it allows a body that is supported by only a portion of the population unfettered latitude to determine the manner of selection of some members of the state legislature.

The ‘ministerial members’ category was included to maintain the power that the Prime Minister currently possesses to appoint Ministers from outside of the Commons by putting them in the Lords.  The Prime Minister would have been limited to appointing eight Ministers to the Lords under this provision, but when they ceased to be Ministers they would stay on in the Lords, and the Prime Minister could then appoint a new ministerial member. It was hard to see what would limit the proliferation of ex-ministers of this type in the House: the shelf-life of Ministers can be very short.  One possible answer to this conundrum – proposed by Joint Committee on the House of Lords Reform Bill – was to allow ministerial members to sit in the Chamber but not vote.  This proposal, which sounds a bit like a payoff to a joke, was not adopted in the final version of the Draft Bill.  The category of ministerial members has the potential to confer a significant power of patronage on the Prime Minister and could significantly affect the balance of members in a reformed Lords.

Members of the Chamber would have been appointed for up to 15 years – a surprisingly long length of time.  Having served, they would not be permitted to stand for the Lords again, and, for four years, would not be permitted to stand for the Commons.  These restrictions would have ensured an independence of mind on the part of members of the Lords, but would have given the electorate little leverage to hold their representatives to account.  These members would have little incentive to maintain connections with the communities that voted for them.  It is interesting to speculate about the type of person who would be attracted to an office of this type.  They would have to be interested in politics – probably, their election would require the support of a political party – but not interested in a long-term political career.

These oddities were generated by the two contrary impulses that characterise Lords reform – and which have ensured that no proposal has secured consensus over the last century.  First, there is broad recognition of the value of a scrutinising second chamber.  The House of Lords does a good job, but it does a good job because it contains many who are not politicians but are rather experts in different areas of life.  Set against this, there is a reflex insistence that the Chamber must be elected.  The more or less articulated belief is that all elements of the legislature require some sort of democratic mandate.  In short, reformers want to keep the Lords as an expert apolitical revising chamber, whilst simultaneously reducing the expertise it possesses and politicising it.

It is this dilemma that may explain the otherwise peculiar failure of Labour to reform the Lords over their long period in office.  Whilst politicians feel constrained to argue for election to the Lords in public, in private many of them worry that this would destroy what is valuable in this institution.  Their actions often fall short of their words.

So what is to be done?  I have a few modest proposals.

For the time being, the push for an elected second chamber should be abandoned.  Far from being a rejection of democracy, an embrace of an appointed second chamber should be seen as a way of upholding democratic values.   All constitutions need elected bodies to determine the policies of the state, but it is a mistake to think that the more elected bodies a system has the more democratic it becomes.  Having too many elected bodies can harm democracy. In order to be a successful democratic body, the legislature must continue to engage with those who have chosen its members, even in between elections.  Voters must correspond and interact with their representatives.  If there are too many such bodies, citizens will become uncertain about which bodies they should engage with, and, as civic virtue is a finite commodity, may tire of the process.

In addition, democracy requires an effective legislature, one that can accomplish things.  Not only must the democratic institution speak for the people, it must also be able to act on their behalf.    A standing danger of Lords reform is that an elected second chamber will become too activist, and will prevent the Commons from setting the policies of the state.  If Parliament becomes deadlocked, the state will no longer be governed democratically; indeed, it will not be governed at all.  This question was considered with some care by the Joint Committee on the House of Lords Reform Bill.  This Committee warned that including statutory provisions to preserve the primacy of the Commons ran the risk of the judiciary intervening in the running of Parliament.  On the other hand, using conventions to shore up the relationship depends on the continuing willingness of the institutions to respect this balance.  The Committee’s proposal – the agreement of a concordat between the Houses – relies, at its base, on convention.  As the Committee recognises, it may prove hard to maintain this concordat over time as an elected Lords grows in confidence.

Lovers of democracy should be wary of making the second chamber elected.  Forty years ago a strong argument could have been made that this was needed; that the Commons was too powerful.  This argument is no longer attractive.  The Commons is hemmed in on all sides.  There are other democratic institutions – at the devolved and European level – that effectively check what the Commons can do.  And the courts now have a limiting role, too, using European Law and the Human Rights Act to shape and, sometimes, restrict Parliament’s statutes.  At present there is no need for another elected body in the constitution.

This is not to say that the Lords cannot be improved – but these improvements should go with the grain of the current body, making it work better as an appointed revising chamber.  The easiest, and most obvious, reforms would be to remove the hereditary peers and Bishops from the chamber.  Having an hereditary element is indefensible and, with the possible exception of 95 or so aristocratic grumblers, their removal would not be controversial.  The Bishops should also not sit as of right, though a number might properly return as appointed members.  Whilst the Church of England provides much harmless entertainment – and, in its discussion of gender roles and sexuality, a fascinating glimpse of the moral debates of a bygone age – it is hard to see why it should have privileged access to the legislature.

Attention should then turn to the process by which members of the Lords are appointed, a mechanism that was significantly improved by the last Labour government.  This should be crafted in order to fulfil the aims of the Lords as a scrutinising and revising chamber.  So, members should be appointed because of their capacity to undertake this task, and not because of their services to a political party.  An appointed chamber gives a chance to ensure that independent expertise is present in the system and, also, that groups which are not properly represented in the Commons are given a voice.  Addressing this question should be the focus of the next thrust of Lords reform.

Nick Barber is a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.

Suggested citation: N. W. Barber, ‘House of Lords Reform: A Look in the Long Grass’ UK Const. L. Blog (12 July 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).


Filed under Constitutional reform, UK Parliament