Monday, 16 December 2002

Reforming Britain's second chamber (updated)

One of the world's oldest legislative bodies — the British House of Lords — is on a slow, but sure course to extinction. Its importance has been diminishing for centuries; the importance of the Commons was greatly increased by the 1689 Bill of Rights, and the 1911 Parliament Act stripped the Lords of most of their powers. In 1999, the House of Lords Act removed the voting rights of all hereditary peers (excluding 92 who retain their voting rights until the reform is complete).

Since 1999, the effort to reform the Lords has stalled. Some have speculated that current Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair likes the Lords the way it is — emasculated and without any democratic legitimacy. Its current composition is most similar among democracies to that of the Canadian Senate: dominated by the “life peers” who are appointed by the prime minister of the day with the assent of the monarch.

In the past week, the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform issued its First Report. The report recommends a chamber of 600 members serving 12-year terms, most likely with some proportion of the membership appointed and the remainder elected (there are also options for a fully-elected and fully-appointed chamber). The report does not envision giving any additional powers to the chamber; it would still be limited to delaying “money bills” no longer than one month and other legislation (except that extending the duration of a government more than five years) no more than one year.

The lack of additional powers for a more representative upper chamber is troubling; the reason the Lords lost most of its powers in the first place is due to its lack of democratic legitimacy. If the upper chamber is to be more legtimate, it ought to have powers commensurate with that legitimacy. At the very least, the reformed upper chamber ought to have power to indefinitely block any legislation that amends the “constitution” — whatever that may be. More importantly, it ought to have oversight powers over the executive, similar to the investigative powers of the U.S. Congress over the bureaucracy and presidency.

As to the upper chamber's composition, I believe a smaller, fully-elected chamber is appropriate. The Commons functions with over 600 members mainly because (a) the Commons largely functions as an electoral college for the executive and a ratifier for its decisions and (b) the business of the Commons is largely orchestrated by the government of the day. The upper chamber would neither choose the prime minister nor would it largely operate in the interests of the prime minister. An upper chamber of 160–240 members seems appropriate.

The chamber should also be fully elected. Assuming a twelve-year term, my recommendation would be to elect a quarter of the membership every three years via party list proportional representation (as Britain already uses for “top-up” seats in the Welsh and Scottish parliaments and for elections to the European Parliament). Vacancies arising through death or resignation could be filled by appointment by the prime minister, or by nomination of the departed member's party.

An upper chamber reformed in this way would be an effective bulwark against overreach by the government of the day while still retaining the prerogatives of the Commons as the primary legislative chamber.

Iain Murray has also discussed Lords reform in his blog.