Reforming the Lords: 25 June

Another break from posting. Let me know if you would rather have more frequent comments.

Reforming the House of Lords is firmly on the national agenda. The Government have published proposals which are being considered over the next months by a Parliamentary committee. The Government want most members of the Lords to be elected – 80% is their starting proposal – for a 15 year term, paid like MPs. They want the total number of members reduced to 300, retaining 12 out of the 26 Bishops (making them a higher proportion of the new House) and allowing the Government to appoint a few Ministers.

Elected members of the Lords will be political party members. We will have the same political parties in the Lords as in the Commons. How, then, will the Lords be able to check the Commons? The Lords need to be sufficiently independent from the Commons to check the detail of their work (including their expenses etc.) and to say, rarely, ‘Please think again about this.’ Professional politicians in the Lords will instead simply vote according to their party line.

The ‘Wakeham Report’ commissioned by Tony Blair near the beginning of his time as Prime Minister stated that the Lords need to provide: ‘broad representation, breadth of experience, skill and knowledge of constitutional and human rights issues, philosophical moral or spiritual perspective, personal distinction, freedom from party domination, and the ability to take a long term view.’(p10) A largely elected Lords will not provide this.

A Civil Society Lords would be far better than an elected Lords. Instead of members representing the political parties, we need people representing the wonderful breadth of British member and supporter organisations. A great Lords would contain representatives of Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, the NSPCC, the National Trust, Amicus, the National Farmers’ Union, the Law Society, the Motor Traders’ Association, the World Development Movement, the Baptist Union, the Moslem Parliament, the Football Association, the Women’s Institute, the Country Landowners Association and many more.

Every organisation with a large membership or supporter base would be able to apply to a Royal Appointments Commission for representation in the House of Lords. The basis of membership would be democratic – numbers would still count. The Toe Wrestling Association, representing a few dozen people, would not have a Lords member. The Angling Trust, representing millions, would have at least one. We would have a new kind of democracy in Parliament to complement and check the political parties in the Commons.

The Royal Appointments Commission would continue the distinctive British heritage of Royal Appointment. The Commission would appoint primarily on the basis of size of membership, but with some flexibility to include smaller organisations deemed important to our national interest. The Commission would give an important role to the Monarch, more than decorative. The Commons would have the ability to veto the whole list proposed by the Commission.

The Civil Society Lords would build on the precedent of the Bishops in the Lords. Instead of only one national organisation, the Church of England, every sizeable national organisation would be represented.

The Civil Society Lords would play a secondary, checking, role to the Commons, who rightly retain overall authority. Yet, as part of the ‘checking’ role, the Lord would be able to halt, for a while, a controversial initiative taken by the ruling party in the Commons. A large majority of Lords members, representing millions of people, speaking with one voice, could not be ignored.

I am trying to promote the Civil Society Lords further, not least within the Church of England. For more details, or to give advice about how to proceed, please comment.

Roger Harper

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