Tuesday, 13 August 2013

A Guide to the Reform of the House of Lords (originally published on Respublica's Disraeli Room on 16th January 2012)

The composition of the upper house of Parliament has been under question for some time and yet still the question has not been answered.  There have been piecemeal reforms, such as the passing of the two Parliament Acts, the introduction of Life Peers and the removal of the vast majority of hereditary peers, but still the questions are asked.  The Coalition Government has now published a draft House of Lords Reform Bill.
Current Composition
The vast majority of peers are now life peers.  The total number of members of the House of Lords is 788 active members.  This number is divided into 26 Lords Spiritual (Bishops of the Church of England) and the remaining 762 are Lords Temporal.  Of the Lords Temporal there are 92 hereditary peers who have inherited their seats to the Lords and the remainder are life peers, whose seats are removed at their death.
There has been a dramatic increase in the number of life peers under the current Coalition Government.  Since May 2010 there have been 117 peerages created.
There is a mechanism for replacing hereditaries when they pass away.  A by-election is held among the hereditaries (both those sitting and those who have lost their automatic right to sit voting).  The winner replaces his deceased colleague.
The House of Lords is the upper house of Parliament and originally was only composed of Lords Spiritual (the bishops) and the Lords Temporal (senior aristocrats).  It emerged in a recognisable form during the Fourteenth Century.  Historically it was more powerful than the Commons, whose members represented the interests of the shires and boroughs.
Under the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, along with the Monarchy the House of Lords was abolished.  With the Restoration of Monarchy and Lords a more gradual evolution took place, which saw the diminishing of the power of the Lords and the growth in the power of the Commons.
In the early Twentieth Century the Commons cemented its supremacy with the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act.  This legislation was in response to the landed interest represented in the Lords resisting the Liberal Government’s Budget, which included a heavy tax on the landed interest.  Under the threat of the Lords being flooded with new Liberal peers, the Lords gave way and accepted the Parliament Act.
Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949
Money bills to become law automatically if not passed by the Lords within one month.
Other bills can be forced through the Lords if rejected three times (provided two years had passed since the Second reading).
This time was to be shortened to two sessions by the Parliament Act 1949.
Further reforms have also affected the Lords.  Life peers were created by the Life Peerages Act 1958.  The House of Lords Act 1999 took away the right of most hereditaries to sit in the house, with only 92 allowed to remain until an obscure second stage of reform took place.
The Law Lords lost their place in the Lords and the Lord Chancellor his role as speaker of the House as a result of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.  As a result the House of Lords is no longer the highest court in the land.  Many of these changes were criticised for having no overall purpose and unpicking the constitutional settlement.
Role of the Lords
The role of the Lords, like that of many British institutions, has evolved rather than been planned.  It has not had its role determined by experts sitting down and working out what it should be; rather it has filled the necessary gaps and provided the function of a revising chamber filled with experts, senior politicians and spiritual and legal leaders.
It sees its purpose as enabling the Commons to think again.  It has no right to override the supremacy of the Commons, but it generally achieves its purpose of considering issues away from the heat of partisan debate with more independence of thought and expertise.  The question therefore left begging is why change it?
Current Proposals
To an extent the argument for reform is that the need has arisen almost by accident.  A system that worked well has been unpicked almost in a fit of absence of mind as New Labour tinkered with the constitution to suit its short-term political needs.
Therefore the scenario presents itself as to what should this second stage of reform be?  The Government itself in its draft bill has left many options open.
It is proposed to have either an 80% elected or a 100% elected Upper Chamber.  Peers would be elected for fifteen year terms and be unable to stand again.  If the 80% option is chosen twelve of the current 26 Lords Spiritual would remain.  With the 100% option they would all be lost.
The case for reform is that Great Britain’s bicameral system is unusual in that it is unelected.  It is also argued that an elected Lords would have more legitimacy and therefore be better able to hold the Commons to account.
The dangers of reform are that the House becomes more partisan, loses its expert and spiritual elements, is made up of politicians who could not make it into the Commons and that it challenges the supremacy of the Commons (the flipside of the argument for an elected chamber).
When embarking upon constitutional reform it is vital that debate is considered and informed.  As the Commons makes up its mind on the 80% or 100% option it must ask the question: What is the purpose of the Lords?  We do not have a written constitution and rather like the Monarchy, the role of the Lords has evolved.  Therefore MPs must look at the current situation to see what the Lords actually does and then ask themselves will current reforms enhance that role or diminish it.  In essence, through evolution, the Lords has become a revising expert chamber, with a strong spiritual and legal input.  Will 80% or 100% elected peers further this equilibrium or hinder it?
- See more at: http://www.respublica.org.uk/item/A-Guide-to-the-Reform-of-the-House-of-Lords

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