Friday, 26 October 2012

Some notes on Lords reform

The numerous inquiries, reports, white papers and parliamentary votes on Lords reform since the House of Lords Act 1999 (listed here) have produced a consensus on quite a number of points:

•  The Commons should remain the primary chamber of Parliament.
•  The Lords should complement the Commons, scrutinising its work and challenging it where appropriate.
•  The existing powers of the Lords should be retained unchanged.

•  The Lords should be representative of modern British society.
•  The Lords should have 550-600 members (this dropped to 300+ members under the most recent Coalition proposals).
•  The Lords should be partly elected and partly appointed.
•  There should be a statutory independent appointments commission to oversee appointments.

•  No one party should dominate the Lords.
•  There should be a significant minority of independent members.

It is particularly noteworthy that there is very little support for strengthening the powers of the Lords.  The notion that the Lords should be complementary and ultimately subordinate to the Commons goes back at least as far as the 1911 debates on Lords reform, and it reflects the subordinate status that the Lords has had, in one form or another, since at least the 17th century.

The international lessons
"The more we looked into [the research], however, the less it seemed that there were any general lessons to be drawn. It is an interesting feature of second chambers around the world... that they are nearly all the subject of complaint and criticism and of more or less radical proposals for reform. Furthermore, they are generally very different from each other." - Wakeham Report (2000)
The research on second chambers around the world (see e.g. here and here) suggests a number of lessons:

•   Most legislatures are unicameral.
•   Bicameral legislatures are more common in larger countries and are often associated with federal systems.
•   Most second chambers have fewer powers than the first chamber, particularly in relation to financial legislation.
•   They may, however, have enhanced powers over constitutional legislation.
•   Many upper houses are directly elected, but it is also quite common for them to contain a mixture of members selected in different ways.
•   The commonest form of mixture is a predominantly elected chamber with a small number of appointed or ex-officio members.
•   Only 15 countries have wholly appointed upper chambers, most of which seem to be former British colonies which inherited the House of Lords model.
•   Terms of office in the upper house are usually longer than those in the lower house.

Interestingly, the less partisan and more intelligent atmosphere of the Lords appears to be a typical feature of second chambers.  A UCL study has stated:
....upper house members work more closely together, scrutinise legislation in more detail, become more expert in specialist topics and operate in a more consensual way which is less driven by the party whip. These are the distinguishing features of second chambers, which often help ensure that they make a distinct and valuable contribution to the legislature. Of course, this can be over stated - on key issues chambers seem to divide along party lines, however the chamber is composed.