Hands off the limited powers of the Lords!

Part of the reason for widespread political apathy and the sense of disillusion with our democracy is the accurate perception that the executive (the government) has established such comprehensive control over the House of Commons, and the powers of the more independent House of Lords are so limited, that parliament no longer performs its vital role of holding an over-mighty government to account, resisting its more illiberal excesses, and removing the tattered fig-leaf from its naughty bits.  Now, instead of seeking to correct some of these harmful defects, the prime minister wants to make his strangle-hold on the Palace of Westminster even tighter.

Caught with his hands in the till over the cash for peerages scandal, Tony Blair has reportedly undergone a sudden conversion on the road to Belmarsh over the introduction of an elected majority in the House of Lords, something reformers have been demanding for almost a century (since it was promised in the 1911 Parliament Act) and for which there is a clear majority in both Houses of Parliament, but which has hitherto been resisted by our soi-disant radical reformist prime minister on the grounds that the introduction of even a minority of elected members of the Upper House would give it such new democratic legitimacy that it would constitute a threat to the ‘primacy of the House of Commons’. According to media reports, however, Mr Blair’s solution to this imaginary threat is to impose yet more limitations on the already strictly limited powers of the second chamber, perhaps even depriving it of any legislative powers altogether. According to the Telegraph website:

Tony Blair is preparing the biggest assault on the powers of the House of Lords for more than 50 years after a series of bruising battles with peers over Labour reforms. The Government plans to change the law to prevent the Upper Chamber blocking legislation that has been passed by the Commons.  In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, said the powers of the Lords should be curtailed as part of a wider package of reforms that could include the creation of a mainly-elected Upper Chamber.

(Never mind that the 1997 Labour Manifesto, sacred text from the Age of Innocence, pledging House of Lords reform, promised in terms: "The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered.")  

But the primacy of the Commons doesn’t depend on the second chamber continuing to lack democratic legitimacy, either because of being unelected as at present, or because of being even more powerless as Mr Blair apparently intends.  Commons primacy stems from its role as the forum in which governments are chosen and sustained or rejected, where almost all ministers sit and are held to account, and which has almost unlimited powers, compared with the heavily circumscribed powers of the Lords.  Anyway, it isn’t really the primacy of the House of Commons that the prime minister is so anxious to preserve: it’s the control of the House of Commons by an over-mighty executive that he wants to go on enjoying, without the inconvenience of having to get his legislation through a much more independent-minded second chamber, especially if the conferring of elective legitimacy on that chamber makes it even more independent-minded and stroppy than it is already.  There’s absolutely no case for further trimming the powers of the second chamber.  Once the last hereditary and appointed Lord and Lady have been removed from it, please let us call it the Senate: and tell Mr Blair to keep his cotton-pickin’ fingers off its powers, rights and role.  The health of our democracy is more important than the government’s convenience.

It’s sad, too, that the national debate on the question of Lords reform is so extraordinarily parochial.  We are apparently too chauvinist and too convinced of our own superiority to have a serious look at what other comparable western democracies do about their bicameral legislatures, in almost every single case more democratic and effective than ours.  We could usefully learn lessons, for example, from the US and Australian constitutions, and perhaps also the German (now that we have sleep-walked half-way into becoming a federation).  We could make sure of a more independent Senate by electing its members in rotation for ten-year terms, using one of the many available systems of proportional representation, thus ensuring that no one party would have an overall majority in it, and limiting membership to one or two terms, thus emasculating the Party Whips at a stroke of the scimitar.  We could introduce a regional element into Senate representation to offset the variations in the sizes of the regions and nations of the UK Federation.  There’s no need or case for keeping those bishops, and the judges are on their overdue way out to a separate Supreme Court anyway.  The existing powers and limitations will ensure that the Commons always have the last word, in the last resort, unless the electorate decides otherwise.  All this could be the equivalent of Viagra for our flagging political system.

Before leaving this dog-eared old subject, I should perhaps declare an interest:  I have already set out my own views on House of Lords reform so often and at such (typical) length that I feel entitled to be excused from repeating them in detail here yet again.  All right, as I have said earlier here, if you really want to know what they are, you can read what I have written in a submission to the Select Committee on Public Administration;  in another, earlier submission to the Lord Chancellor’s Department;  in two letters published in The Times;   and in at least two previous entries in Ephems, here and here.   I am happy to stand by them all.  Just let us keep a firm grip on basic principles and raise the flag of resistance to this latest folly of Mr Blair’s.


3 Responses

  1. Michael, says:

    As you point out, Brian, we have been trying to reform the House of Lords for about a 100 years and the job seems to be beyond our efforts. There are endless arguments over its role, how it should operate, who should be members of it, and how.Because its members have titles,  it attracts the ambitions of the wealthy and socially ambitious (snobs) leading to money scandals. Would it not stop all this nonsense once and for all by disbanding the House of Lords and adopting a unicameral system of government? Denmark Sweden and New Zealand manage very well with this, and in our own country , Scotland does so. Genuinely independent Commons committees could take over the work of the House of Lords. Another advantage of such an upheaval would no doubt be the need for a  written constitution which would raise before us the heady prospect of the country’s governance entering the 19th century.

    Brian comments:  In a situation where (1) the government has virtually total control of the House of Commons, and (2) the House of Lords (despite being entirely unelected and lacking all democractic legitimacy) is one of only two constitutional bodies regularly to challenge the worst excesses served up by ministers — the other being the judiciary, especially the Law Lords — it would seem to me highly dangerous to abolish it.  There is at last a very broad consensus about the need to rid the Lords of the remaining hereditaries and to introduce election by PR for either the majority of, or all, members of a reformed house on a different cycle from the Commons.   It’s also broadly agreed that if a minority appointed element is to remain, the power of appointment must be removed from the prime minister and other party leaders.  Until Blair caused his man the Lord Chancellor to toss into the debate this grenade about reducing the powers of the second chamber, including even the abolition of its delaying power, there had been a near-consensus that its role and functions should remain pretty well as they are.  The Blair/Falconer proposals would virtually amount to abolition, turning the chamber into a debating society without teeth, which is what the government wants — and what in effect you, Michael, are suggesting.  We could be on the verge of a historic reform: now is not the time to give up.

    There is also the important point to bear in mind that (as argued elsewhere in Ephems and as mentioned in the original post, above) we are more than half-way into becoming a federal Britain UK and we should be — but aren’t, alas — thinking actively about the constitutional implications of that, including the structure and role of a federal second chamber, probably aimed at giving the regions and nations equal representation as in the US and Australia, in order to protect the interests of the smaller lower-tier regions.  It will be extremely difficult to move towards that if there is no longer a second chamber at Westminster available to convert.  But I agree with you entirely about the need for a written constitution in a single document, and for dropping the absurd practice of giving members of the second chamber the title of Lord or Lady, something that should manifestly have been done when life "peerages" were introduced.  In this country change, if it is to happen at all, happens at the pace of the slowest snail, so we have to try to be patient and to work with what we’ve got.

  2. matt says:

    "We could make sure of a more independent Senate by electing its members
    in rotation for ten-year terms, using one of the many available systems
    of proportional representation, thus ensuring that no one party would
    have an overall majority in it, and limiting membership to one or two
    terms, thus emasculating the Party Whips at a stroke of the scimitar. "


    Good proposal 

    "We could introduce a regional element into Senate representation to
    offset the variations in the sizes of the regions and nations of the UK

    Can’t see the need for this in addition to regional assemblies.  

    "There’s no need or case for keeping those bishops"

    True – maybe disestablishment should be wrapped as part of this. 

    "…and the judges are on their overdue way out to a separate Supreme Court anyway."


    And a written constitution whilst we are at it – a supreme court without a constitution is like an ageing courtesan all dressed up with nowhere to go  (is there a better simile than this? Probably!). 

    I mostly wonder why the commons seeks to check the lords – it strikes of the most awful short termism although the governing party has to submit to (a few) checks on its power it will not be in government for ever and the lack of checks on the new executive will be highly problematical to the newly disempowered opposition.  So where are the visionaries in the UK constitutional field?  Like the giants of the US Constitutional conventions, people of the likes of James Madison who saw that limited government was in and of itself a good thing:

    "But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on
    human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary.
    If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on
    government would be necessary. In forming a government which is to be
    administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you
    must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next
    place oblige it to control itself."
    –James Madison (my emphasis)

    Brian writes:  A splendid Madison quotation.  We are indeed in sore need of political leaders with the vision and far-sightedness of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  As to the need for a second chamber with equal representation of the second-tier regions and nations, clearly the regions need to be represented in the federal organs, including the second chamber of the legislature, and equal representation there (as in the US and Australian Senates) helps to prevent the smaller regions constantly being outvoted by a few larger ones.  It’s a protection of sorts of the rights of minorities.  In Australia, for example, equal representation of all the States in the Senate prevents New South Wales and Victoria Senators always outvoting (e.g.) Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland.