Lords reform

Lord Norton

The Sunday Times yesterday carried a leak as to one of the recommendations that will be appearing in the Government White Paper on Lords reform: provision for a recall election for elected members of the upper house.

The proposal rather reflects the muddled thinking that has underpinned work on the White Paper.  The idea is to have elected members serve single long-terms of 10-15 years.  The reason for this is to try to retain the independence that characterises the existing House.  By not being subject to re-election, members would be able to speak and act freely.  However, recognising that once elected, members could decide to do little or nothing, yet be paid – the intention is that they should be salaried – the Government now suggests provision for a recall election: if a set number of electors sign a recall petition, the member is removed and a new election triggered. 

The intention is that this will be used against members who do little, but there will be nothing presumably to stop it being used on political grounds.  How, then, does one protect the independence of members who may have to be looking constantly over their shoulders in case political opponents threaten a recall petition?  MPs at least know they are secure until the next general election.  Members of the second chamber will only be secure until someone starts a recall petition: even if not successful, it will drag the member into what is likely to be a bruising political conflict.

One may be overly optimistic if one assumes that this is the only muddled thinking that will appear in the White Paper.   One need only look at previous White Papers on the subject.

9 comments for “Lords reform

  1. Adrian Kidney
    08/07/2008 at 6:07 am

    I hope this goes the way of the Dodo too. I hope we get no legislation until April 2009 – after that point and until the election the Lords can throw it out.

  2. 08/07/2008 at 8:52 am

    As a democrat I find it hard to reconcile my support for the current
    system with the obvious impulse to make the upper chamber more
    directly accountable to the people. I somewhat square the circle with
    the understanding of the Lords revising role mean they are unable to
    propose legislation while also acting as a brake on ill-conceived
    populist legislation. I don’t feel my life is being dictated by
    unelected people (from the upper house at least!).

    Part of that understanding is that aside from the senior politicians
    the house benefits from ennobled academics, scientists, lawyers and
    other professions outside the political classes. I think it’s
    important we have these people to deeply examine laws and foresee
    things the politicians may have missed. My chief worry is
    these people would not be enticed to serve if they have to get
    involved in the dirty political game.

    In principle I have no problem with the senior politicians having to
    face the electorate although it could potentially lead to problems
    with having two classes of Lords. I would hope this wouldn’t lead to
    “My mandate is more legitimate than yours” arguments across the
    floor.

    However Lords are selected I think the idea of limited terms has merit
    though. 10-15 years should be enough time for someone to learn the
    ropes and make an impact in the house without entreating them to keep
    going to the end.

    The trouble with recall elections is I suspect they wouldn’t be used
    enough or for the right reasons. Someone is more likely to be subject
    to such an election because of doing something unpopular (biasing the
    house to be populist) rather than doing nothing. I’d far rather see
    Lords removed for the house for failing to meet minimum attendance
    (with a low bar) so if there are any Lords there just to make up the
    numbers on crunch votes they can be removed and replaced with ones
    more likely to contribute to the debate.

  3. Matt
    08/07/2008 at 9:26 am

    If you haven’t seen it, the Sunday Times article is here.

    Imagine the Lords had been elected under this system in 2001 – we would almost certainly have a Labour majority in the upper House. Seven years down the line, that majority would only be half-way through its term of office. Would there not be a temptation for Conservative supporters in 2008, with the polls behind them, to invoke the recall provision against large numbers of peers in the hope of winning back the upper House? I can’t imagine this would be a desired outcome.

    It will be interesting to see exactly what the official wording of the white paper is suggesting.

  4. Mark Shephard
    08/07/2008 at 10:35 am

    Even aside from the problems already discussed, 10-15 years also creates a de facto term limit, which would create problems such as amateurism (especially if terms were not staggered) due to lack of institutional memory which would alter the balance of power vis-a-vis interest groups etc. Also, if somebody is doing a good job, why do we need to fire them? Time to dig out the Federalist Papers again…perhaps the government could be referred to Paper 62.

  5. Bedd Gelert
    08/07/2008 at 4:21 pm

    I really don’t know why you are even bothering to discuss this…

    With u-turns happening on ‘Climate Change’, ‘Car Tax’, ‘Ten Pence Tax’, ’42-day concessions’, and huge challenges on the economic front, knife crime, polyclinics etc. etc. I think this is not even on the ‘Top Twenty’ list of urgent problems requiring fire-fighting by Number 10..

    Go and enjoy the summer break, take some good books, get in the hammock, soak up the sun and stop worrying.. Hakuna Matata and all that..

  6. lordnorton
    08/07/2008 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks for all the comments so far. Bedd Gelert: it is necessary to be vigilant, because if one is not there is always the danger that even half-baked ideas may get through.

  7. Bedd Gelert
    08/07/2008 at 9:24 pm

    Lord Norton,

    Indeed you are right – my laissez faire approach has got me into no end of scrapes, and a more vigilant approach would have saved me no end of hassle and stress, but hey, how can one change the habit of a lifetime?

    Cheerio,
    BG

  8. ladytizzy
    09/07/2008 at 2:42 am

    I’m still trying to get my head round this dog’s breakfast. Straw has come up with the idea of the electorate voting in a member of the Lords yet allowing a bunch of those elected to throw out ‘our’ representative? How is this enhancing democracy?

    Has any study been conducted into the likely turnout for a fully/largely elected second house, given the angst on low turnout’s for the Commons?

    What is the general consensus on the Scottish Parliament experiment of having legislation scrutinised by committee rather than a second house?

    Can the Prime Minister be persuaded that elections are not always such a good thing for people who believe they have earned their position?

  9. lordnorton
    10/07/2008 at 9:00 am

    ladytizzy: No study has been done of the likely turnout, but it seems generally accepted that a free-standing election would produce a small if not negligible turnout. That has underpinned Government proposals for elections to the second chamber to be combined with other parliamentary elections, either elections to the Commons or, the preferred option, elections to the European Parliament – not that European Parliament elections exactly generate high turnouts. There is the obvious question, implicit in what you write: what would motivate people to vote? Unlike elections to the Commons, they would not be voting in order to determine who forms the government.

    On the Scottish Parliament experience, it is difficult to assess the implications in terms of the absence of a second chamber. What I would note is that the legislative burden has been quite heavy and the extent of legislation enacted only achieved by a fairly heavy reliance (certainly higher than originally expected) on Legislative Consent Motions – what used to be known as Sewel Motions – where the Scottish Parliament invites the Westminster Parliament to extend a piece of legislation going through Westminster to be extended to Scotland. Without that capaciity, the Scottish Parliament would have struggled to get all the measures affecting Scotland on to the statute book.

    On your last query, I think the answer is yes (Thatcher, Major and Blair were persuaded, Gordon Brown’s views are not altogether clear) though I think the point to make about your comment is that the important perception is not whether individuals believe they have earned their position but rather whether other people believe the individual has earned his/her position. I like to think I am in the Lords because others have recognised I have something to contribute – which is a great motivation to make a contribution.

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