Lordsreform.org

Written evidence submitted by Dr Alex Reid to the Joint Committee on Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, 24.1.12


This submission is based on an assessment, which I have undertaken as an interested member of the public, of the 603 pages of written evidence, and the oral evidence, which has been submitted to the Joint Committee. This submission is also published in expanded form, with supporting material, at www.lordsreform.org.

Where there is agreement

The evidence submitted to the Joint Committee shows almost unanimous agreement on three points:

a. The House of Lords is doing a useful job, scrutinising and revising draft legislation, and on occasion delaying legislation to give Government the opportunity to think again.

b. The current balance of power between Commons and Lords is about right.

c. The composition of the House of Lords suffers from some defects, which should be rectified. It has become too large (809), the hereditary Peers should be phased out, and arrangements for suspension and expulsion of Peers should be introduced.

Where there is disagreement

However, there are two matters on which the evidence shows strong and widespread objection to the Government’s proposals:

a. The proposal to move from an appointed House of Lords to one which is largely or wholly elected is seen as presenting two serious dangers:

- Balance of power between Commons and Lords. The present balance of power between Commons and Lords, which is widely seen as satisfactory, rests on conventions not codified in law and on the self-restraint of an unelected House of Lords. A directly elected House of Lords, whatever the electoral system, would be likely to become much more assertive. This would lead to conflict rather than complementarity between the Houses, and potential gridlock as sometimes occurs in the USA. An attempt to prevent this by codifying the conventions into law would have the disadvantage of setting arrangements into concrete; it would also risk drawing the courts into disputes between the two Houses. This would complicate the current relationship between Parliament and the judiciary, and could also lead to legal delays impeding the work of Parliament.

- Loss of expertise and independence. A largely or wholly elected House of Lords would be dominated (as is the Commons) by career politicians who had worked their way up through political parties. There would be fewer eminent people with substantial experience of the world outside politics. This would be a serious loss in terms of expertise and judgement. Also career politicians are more likely to be subservient to the party whips, thus reducing the currently somewhat independent character of the House of Lords.

b. The proposal for House of Lords members to move from being part-time and unpaid (receiving only a per diem allowance) to being full-time parliamentarians with salaries and pensions is seen as having two serious disadvantages:

- Aggravating the loss of expertise and independence. The move to full-time salaried employment would reinforce the appeal of the House of Lords to career politicians, and would reduce its appeal to people who have, and wish to retain, an involvement in the wider world outside politics.

- Cost. At a time when there is a compelling necessity to focus on value for money in the public sector, the creation of 300 or more full time jobs for professional politicians in the House of Lords, at an additional cost of perhaps £25m per annum, is difficult to justify.

The Government case

In its foreword to the White Paper, the Government does not put forward any argument that the proposed changes would improve the effectiveness or efficiency of the House of Lords. The only argument put forward for the changes is one of democratic principle. To quote:

‘In a modern democracy it is important that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those to whom those laws apply. The House of Lords performs its work well but lacks sufficient democratic authority’.

The Evolution Option

At first sight there is a binary choice – between the status quo (without democratic legitimacy) and a largely or wholly elected House (with all the risks and disadvantages set out above).

I believe there is a middle way, which merits serious consideration, and which I refer to as the Evolution Option. This would be a House (of say 540) with a minority (say 25%) of Independent Members appointed as at present, and the majority (75%) being appointed by parties in numbers pro rata to the party’s share of vote in the last General Election. There would, as the Government proposes, be a single 15 year term, staggered so that one third of seats became vacant every five years. Hereditary Peers would be phased out, and all members would continue to be part-time and unpaid receiving only a per diem allowance as at present.

The Evolution Option would go a long way to meet the Government’s desire for democratic legitimacy, because the number of party-affiliated members from each party would be exactly pro rata to the parties’ share of vote in the last General Election.

It is important to make clear that each batch of vacant seats would not be allocated to parties pro rata to share of vote. That approach, which has been suggested by some, would not produce proportionality overall. Indeed it could easily result in a party which had just won a General Election ending up with fewer seats in the Lords than the party that had just lost.

Under the Evolution Option each batch of vacant seats would be allocated to parties in such a way as to produce proportionality overall. In the event that one party lost more than a third of its share of vote between elections, exact proportionality could not be achieved. However that  is most unlikely. In the last 50 years no major party has lost a third of its share of vote between elections. Even if that does occur in the future, a highly proportional result would still be achieved, with exact proportionality likely after the following General Election.

The Evolution Option substantially increases democratic legitimacy, but it does so in a modest, incremental way which would greatly reduce the risks associated with the directly elected approach. Instead of costing more it would cost less.

The reduced cost arises because the present remuneration arrangements would be applied to a smaller number of members; also there would be no cost of additional elections.

Bishops and Ministers

Of those submitting evidence who express an opinion on the matter there is a majority view that it is inappropriate for Bishops to have seats as of right in the House of Lords – particularly since some Bishops could (alongside other faiths) be nominated as Independent Members by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The majority do not object to the proposal that the Prime Minister should be able to nominate some Ministers to serve as additional members of the House of Lords for the duration of their ministerial tenure; but there is a widespread view that their number should be statutorily limited to say six. To maintain party proportionality, the Evolution Option would not allow those Ministers to vote.

How the Evolution Option would work

With a reduced house of 540 there would be 135 Independent Members, comprising 25% of the whole. This is a reduction of just over 10% on the current 152 Crossbench Life Peers, which could probably achieved by voluntary retirement. In addition to reducing the number of Independent Members to 135, the House of Lords Appointments Commission would need to allocate them to three equal groups of 45 each, who would have further terms of 5, 10 and 15 years respectively. This could be done, for example, by assigning the longest terms to those who have served for the shortest period.

If reform is to be achieved before the next General Election in 2015, the allocation of the 75% of seats to parties would be based on the share of vote in the 2010 General Election. The table below shows the increase or reduction in party-nominated Life Peers that would be needed for each party, based on the share of vote in the 2010 General Election. If the transition date to a reformed House is after the 2015 General Election, then the allocation would be based on share of vote in the 2015 General Election.
 

Party

Current Life Peers

Seat entitlement after 2010 Gen Election

Change

Conservative

170

149

-21

Labour

235

120

-115

Liberal Democrat

87

95

+8

Other parties

10

41

+31

Total

502

405

-97


Under the Evolution Option, it would be for each party to decide how to select their additional (or reduced) nominees. Each party would also need to decide how to allocate their nominees into thirds, having terms of 5, 10 and 15 years respectively. Thereafter it would be for each party to decide how to select its nominations for future vacancies allocated to it. Suppose hypothetically that at the 2015 General Election the Conservative and Labour shares of vote are reversed, with the other shares of vote remaining the same. The way in which exact proportionality would be maintained under the Evolution Option is shown below:
 

Party

Share of vote in 2010 Gen Election

Seats after 2010 Gen Election

Share of vote in 2015 Gen Election if Con & Lab reversed

Contin-
uing members (two
thirds)

Total entitle-ment to seats after 2015 Gen Election

Allocation of vacancies after 2015 Gen Election to achieve this

Con

36.1%

149

29.0%

100

120

20

Labour

29.0%

120

36.1%

80

149

69

L.Dem

23.0%

95

23.0%

63

95

32

Other

11.9%

41

11.9%

27

41

14

Total

100%

405

100%

270

405

135



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The Lordsreform.org website aims to inform public debate on changes proposed to the House of Lords in the 2011 White Paper. To focus discussion, it proposes some key changes to the Draft Bill regarding part-time Peers, size of House, and indirect elections. The website is edited by Dr Alex Reid.


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