Second chambers

Lord Norton

Second chambers are remarkable for a number of reasons.  Most countries don’t have one, though they are common in federal states and Western nations.  Though a minority taste, and often controversial, they can serve useful purposes and a number of developing countries and new democracies have established, or are considering establishing, them.  The proposal for a second chamber has had a favourable reception, for example, in the Iraqi Parliament.  Next month, I am taking part in a seminar with some members of the Iraqi Constitutional Review Committee to examine the creation of a second chamber.

Indonesia is an emerging democracy that established a second chamber in 2004.  Various members of the chamber attended the Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians at the weekend: they were keen to learn from experience elsewhere.  One interesting feature that they highlighted was that the second chamber was not clearly identified in their constitution, even though it had been brought into existence.  I was able to point out that in this respect they were not unique.  There are various nations, as well as the European Union, that are unicameral according to their constitutions yet have a body that has all the characteristics of a second chamber.   They include Botswana (the House of Chiefs) and Iran (the Guardian Council).  Conversely, there are some nations where the constitution provides that the legislature is bicameral but where they have not got round to establishing the second chamber.   Reading constitutions will not therefore provide a completely accurate guide to the number of second chambers that exist. 

In the UK, the House of Lords may prove an issue of some contention but at least it does constitute a clearly designated second chamber.

8 comments for “Second chambers

  1. ladytizzy
    29/07/2008 at 1:34 am

    Fascinating. Good luck with giving Iraq democracy.

    What are your thoughts on the current legislative status of Scotland?

  2. James
    30/07/2008 at 2:23 pm

    Is the UK the only democracy to have seats in its second chamber for a particular religion?

  3. lordnorton
    01/08/2008 at 3:07 pm

    James: The answer, in part, depends on whether one of the bodies I refer to in the post – the Guardian Council in Iran – is treated as a second chamber. Iran has an elected chamber but measures it passes then have to be considered by the Guardian Council – an appointed body that includes clerics – to ensure that they comply with the constitution and sharia law. In the event of a dispute, a measure can back and forth betweeen the chambers (the navette) as in many other bicameral systems. Some may think the Guardian Council has the attributes of a constitutional court, but its decisions are not defintive (as reflected in the existence of the navette procedure). Disputes between the chambers can be resolved by reference to what in effect has the characteristics of a constitutional court, the Expediency Council.

  4. lordnorton
    01/08/2008 at 3:50 pm

    ladytizzy: I am not sure there is much to comment on regarding the current legislative status of Scotland, not least since it is a unicameral and not a bicameral legislature. As I have mentioned previously, the Scottish Parliament may possibly benefit from a second chamber. At the moment, it succeeds in passing the amount of legislation that it does because of the provision for Legislative Consent (previously Sewel) Motions, inviting Westminster to extend Bills covering England and Wales to Scotland. The use of such motions has been far more extensive than anticipated. However, the main issue affecting Scotland is not so much legislative as constitutional and political. The two are linked, not least in terms of the failure to keep the machinery for resolving disputes between Westminster and Holyrood in good working order during the period that the same party was dominant in both. On this, see the Constitution Committee report, ´Devolution: Inter-Institutional Relations in the United Kingdom´ (2003). We warned then that the same party would not always be in control in Westminster and Holyrood and this needed to be anticipated and not ignored.

  5. Adrian Kidney
    02/08/2008 at 1:54 pm

    I am atheist, myself – but I don’t find the presence of the 26 bishops and archbishops of the Church of England in the House of Lords particularly repugnant. Many other faiths in Britain actually support it being there, the loudest detractors normally coming from within the Church. It actually serves to secularise culture rather than evangelise it, and prevents churches from being the preserve of the insanely devout, as I like to call them.

  6. howridiculous
    06/08/2008 at 9:21 pm

    Lord Norton,

    I wonder if you could tell us how many other Parliaments you have visited and whether those visits have been as an academic or as a parliamentarian or as both!


  7. lordnorton
    06/08/2008 at 10:11 pm

    Howridiculous: I have not done a count, but they are very varied, both politically and geographical. I have spoken in a range of legislatures as well as simply visiting others. They include legislatures in South, Central and North America – I have spoken, for example, in the parliaments of Brazil, Mexico and Canada – as well as in Europe and, more far flung, Hong Kong. In some countries, I have also visited state or subnational legislatures. My visits have invariably been as an academic though my parliamentary role has often been stressed by my hosts as much as my academic qualifications. I attribute this to the fact that to many a lord is more of a rarity than a professor.

  8. howridiculous
    08/08/2008 at 4:38 pm

    Thank you, Lord Norton, that is very helpful.


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