Sunday, October 22, 2006

Rename the Lords!

Jack Straw's ideas about House of Lords reform (leaked document) are a good first step towards changing the chamber away from a council of elders into something actually reflecting the electorate at large. In short, the plan is to:

  • Reduce the number of members by a third.
  • Half 50% appointed and 50% elected.
  • Pay elected members a salary and kick them out after three Parliamentary terms.
  • Reduce the number of bishops who have seats in the Lords.
  • Allow in some way for increases in minority religious/racial/gender representation (for example via quotas).
The document proposes an Appointments Commission (accountable to Parliament rather than the government) which would be responsible for determining who would be appointed to the Lords and would ensure that the make up of the appointed half would reflect the makeup of the country as a whole in gender, religion, racial grouping, and also where they live in the country.

I have concerns about the religious appointment; at the moment the Church of England receives twenty-six seats in the House of Lords (the Lords Spiritual), these are the major bishops throughout the country. If we are to be appointing based on religion we need to do it in the same way for all - it would be unfair to appoint a bishop to represent the CoE but some random Catholic, Muslim or Hindu to represent their respective religion. I am not an expert on the structure of Islam but Catholicism clearly has a heirarchy and appointing the upper echelons of the Church of England but not, say, the Archbishop of Westminster would be unfair. It would also create the case where for example an appointee may feel some duty to speak out on behalf of all who follow the same religion despite their lack of position in the religious heirarchy - a Hindu, for example, cannot claim to speak on behalf of all Hindus in the country as there is no "head" of Hinduism.

Also, given that the only time of year most people go to church is for Christmas out of some sense of guilt (and the rest of the family is dragged kicking and screaming), perhaps there should be some people appointed to represent agnostics and atheists? I nominate Richard Dawkins.

The paper makes a good case for not having an all-elected house which I think the Liberal Democrats in particular have been too quick to ignore - the importance of crossbenchers. These people are not career politicians like many on party benches but bring important specialist knowledge to the House. Having the Lords entirely elected would lead to a massive decrease in the number of non-politicians in the Lords which I think would also lead to a decrease in the effectiveness as a body which works mainly to improve laws rather than score political points.

The best electoral system for elected members proposed in the paper is the partially-open list system (though possibly it is too confusing). Proportional representation across the entire country would truly represent the electorate as a whole and would be sufficiently different from the House of Commons to not affect the importance of constituency links. Members would also be able to act as individuals rather than representatives allowing them to vote on conscience rather on what would get them re-elected is important.

The proposals for the duration of an elected peer's time in the Lords is interesting - they would be able to be elected once, and if elected, would stay in the Lords for three Parliamentary terms (around twelve years) and would not be able to enter again. As before this would help in allowing them to focus on things other than getting re-elected.

The final part of the document suggests removing any link between having a peerage and being allowed to sit in the House of Lords (cue going back through this post and changing the word "peer") given as the members would not be for life. It would also remove all hereditary peerages from sitting in the Lords. The document notes (in a kind of anti-monarchist way) that allowing people to sit in Parliament because of their ancestry is unacceptable. I fully agree.

In conclusion the document is a welcome proposal for giving the House of Lords some democratic legitimacy while ensuring it remains less political and allows it to focus more on reviewing bills than scoring political points than the House of Commons. It removes the antiquated notion that ancestry should in any way entitle you to a privileged position and allows for increased representation of minority groups which will have a clear positive impact on society. It does of course have its problems such as the proposal to provide for religious representation - which is ridiculous in one of the most religiously apathetic countries in Europe where people tick the Christianity box in surveys because they are reminded they were baptised when they were a baby. However, it is definitely a step forward.

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