To Refer or not?

Baroness D'Souza

The Blog has been strangely silent over the bank holiday week-end – does this suggest that most of you blog only at work or that you are all out and about pursuing hobbies?

I mentioned the possibility of a referendum on an elected House of Lords at last week’s meeting of Lord Norton’s Reform Group. It was roundly turned down,  very courteously as is always the case in Lords dealings, but firmly nevertheless. The main reason being that no one believed that such a referendum would result in anything but a vote for a fully elected Second Chamber – an outcome few of us think is the best solution. 

I have to say I am not so sure. Part of the reason for putting this idea forward was to  seize the opportunity to educate a wider public about the work of the Lords – I am willing to bet that only a tiny fraction of the 56 about to enter the Lords have any real familiarity with its work – but to judge by some of your comments and those of an increasing number of media spokespeople  the issue is at least worthy of proper debate. A referendum would enable this.

I wonder too how MPs will respond when it becomes clear that an elected House of Lords will inevitably wish to challenge the powers of the Commons?

23 comments for “To Refer or not?

  1. 01/06/2010 at 12:54 pm

    I have just come across this website! I want to thank you, Lady D’Souza, and other peers who contribute. As someone from Canada this is all very different to me, yet in some odd ways, familiar as parts of our Senate are based on the Lords, and, ironically, vice versa. Our Senators serve for life, for example, though recently we’ve forced them to retire at age 75.

    The debate about electing the upper house is similar in both nations it seems. I certainly hope that hard working peers currently in the Lords will find a place in the chamber in a post-reform situation.

  2. Croft
    01/06/2010 at 1:13 pm

    Perhaps I mis-sent but one of my posts disappeared into the ether. I wonder how many people got out of the habit of checking for new posts with the seemingly never-ending purdah block on new posts.

    Remembering everyone expected the Australian referendum to return a republic I wonder if the analysis is correct here. I suspect a generic referendum might say yes but if it a selection of options I have more doubts.

    I’d rather have a referendum either way as I don’t like major constitutional change decided by the political class among themselves.

    On the MPs it’s worth noting – I wonder how many peers have – that the effect of the new 5 year fixed parliament is to effectively nullify the Lords 1 yr veto (parliament with last on average 25% longer). Time for the 2nd parliament act to be repealed as a bare minimum to restore the status quo ante

  3. Troika21
    01/06/2010 at 4:21 pm

    Educating the public about the work of the Lords and how it functions would be the best ‘reform’ parliament could do for the HoL.

    I think you might be right about how few incomming members understand how the HoL works, but I really can’t see how it would be their fault if they don’t.

    There is a general dirth of education about parliament and its workings, outside public schools of course.

  4. Dave H
    01/06/2010 at 4:50 pm

    I think your best bet to avoid an elected Lords is to highlight your last point – a fully elected Lords has the same status as the Commons in terms of representing the people and as such should be able to block legislation and handle finance matters.

    I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but if it does end up fully elected, it is important that the election process is largely decoupled from that of the Commons and is smoothed to avoid landslide swings from one side to the other. Electing 20% per year for a fixed five-year term seems like a good way, apart from determining the voting methods and the initial start-up period.

    The problem with any referendum is the wording of the question, because somehow it always seems to have a bias in favour of what the government wants.

  5. 01/06/2010 at 4:57 pm

    Aren’t referendums usually timed so that the incumbent government gets what it wants? Look at the referendums on devolution in Wales and Scotland. They knew Scotland would vote yes, but Wales was borderline, so they held it the following week so that Welsh voters would see the Scots celebrating on TV. I call it temporal gerrymandering.

    As for a referendum on Lords reform, as you say the vote will almost certainly be for an elected house. Therefore the referendum will be held when the government of the day wants an elected Lords, in order to legitimise their actions in the name of democracy.

    As for the site being quiet, I checked it over the Bank Holiday, and not a single comment was posted. The comments I posted myself seem to have disappeared into a black hole too. The blog hasn’t been the same since your Easter shutdown.

  6. Chris K
    01/06/2010 at 4:59 pm

    I’m not so sure either!

    A referendum is, surely, the best we can hope for? And, I would argue, the only appropriate way for Lords reform to come about?

    Referendums didn’t really exist in 1910/11, so a special General election on such a drastic change to our constitution as the Parliament Act was required.

    Surely, if we’re going to have one on the voting system, we should also have one of the composition of our second chamber?

    There is a very strong case for a referendum. And with people as eloquent as Lord Norton and yourself campaigning for the “no” (or possibly “yes”) side, I would say the result is far from certain!

    Perhaps a referendum question could be phrased “Do you want 300 more career politicians legislating for you?”.

    • 02/06/2010 at 2:40 am

      Chris K: You offer a good model for less closedly phrasing a referendum question.

      However, might it not still be insufficiently open or multiple-choiced to engage the People in the quality and quantity of scrutiny & deliberation that an empowered democratic citizen surely needs to be competent in, before making his/her irrevocable governance-choice at the ballot-box ?

      Publicising such clarification might also raise glimpses of deeper-buried conflicts, such as the as yet insidiously chronic and incurable one, between the ‘need’ of the professional politicians to hold win-lose ‘debates’, and the more vital need of The People to perform non-political preparatory fact-sharing, cooperative discussion, and constructive submission writing.

      A mature democracy should always have serious two-way channels open between The Top Politicians & Professionals and the seriously-participant individual-citizen & groups-of-citizens.

      Such seriously responsible two-way communication between People and Parliament should be continually alive through all the days, weeks, months and years between voting times.

      The People only become the politically-competitive Electorate once every four or five years, for the few seconds it takes to put an unreasoning and somewhat ‘dumb’ pencil mark on a ballot paper.

      I wonder why Britain is constituted to be so inhibitively win-lose competitive, and to be suppressive towards win-win-win cooperative problem solving such as Method III, at all levels of The People and of Governance ?

      • Dave H
        02/06/2010 at 4:35 pm

        Most people are happy to ignore politics and politicians except at election time unless the government annoys them with proposed legislation.

        That’s how I ended up here, having been annoyed and subsequently been less than impressed with how the system works (even though it resolved in my favour when the government ran out of time). By giving input on here I hope to have some voice in whatever happens next, which is likely to be more than most people who will grumble at ‘the government’ (generic, regardless of who is in power) and conform to my first paragraph.

  7. JH
    01/06/2010 at 7:14 pm

    Lady D’Souza,

    I’d assumed there may be a technical or moderation problem (we shall see).

    I’m not surprised your referendum proposal was roundly turned down – having enjoyed reading many debates on referendums here – but it could certainly help inform the electorate (although possibly at too high a cost?)

    Incidentally, I may be miss-parsing the former Prime Minister but on a number of occasions in the campaign (at least 2 debates and the Paxman interview) he talked about a referendum on changes to the house of commons and reform on the House of Lords!

    • 01/06/2010 at 9:54 pm

      There are indeed issues with the site. Comments are appearing now, but every post says “Your comment is awaiting approval” even when I haven’t written one. Also, previously, waiting comments were still visible to the person who wrote them – it was reassuring that they actually had been submitted – but that’s no longer the case. Perhaps someone on the technical team needs to look at tweaking the WordPress theme…

  8. Senex
    01/06/2010 at 9:33 pm

    Extracts from the 1999 BBC link below:

    “The colourful ceremonies of the House of Lords have evolved over hundreds of years but they now face extinction from Labour’s reform of the upper chamber.”

    “Although the dress is commonly known as ermine robes, the fur is actually miniver – rabbit fur – which has black spots painted into it to represent ermine.”

    “There still remain five ranks within a peerage: Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron”

    “The oldest English title is that of Lord de Ros, which dates back to 1264. — But comparatively few members hold ancient peerages and fewer than 100 survive from before the civil war”

    “Newly-created peers must be ceremonially introduced before taking their seats in the Lords. The custom is for two peers of the same rank to act as sponsors to accompany the new peer during his introduction.”

    “The Woolsack is a cushion stuffed with commonwealth wool. It dates back to the 14th century where it symbolised the vital importance at the time of wool to the economy.”

    See also “Your views on Lords reform” BBC link below…

    Ref: A House of Traditions
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/special_report/1999/01/99/lords_reform/235653.stm
    We’re missing a photo of Baroness D’Souza
    http://www.theyworkforyou.com/peer/baroness_d%27souza

    • Chris K
      02/06/2010 at 6:07 pm

      And I see someone has uploaded a documentary about the Hereditary purge of 1999 to youtube.

      http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=51462CE43DDD3BDB

      • Senex
        03/06/2010 at 9:45 pm

        Chris thanks for that…

        The clearout occurred in 1999 and this link

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peerage_law

        talks about this amongst other interesting things.

        The year 1999 seems like the dark ages now in terms of internet accessible information and as such the opaqueness of what the hereditary system was about was most certainly exploited with prejudice by republican elements within Parliament.

        This link

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hereditary_peer

        is quite a good effort that describes them and the house generally?

        My view on an elected house is an elite voting for an elite to extract its best qualities. It is relevant and responsible democracy on those terms.

        A pruned bush grows back all the stronger. The clearout worked in favour of those that remain in the house because one could argue they are the best of the bunch. It simply was not acceptable for numties on the dole to sit in the house as a privilege of birth.

        They should embrace democracy in a form that strengthens rather than weakens them and all should oppose Lord Tyler and the LDP attempting to bring universal suffrage to the house.

  9. 01/06/2010 at 9:46 pm

    Another way referendums can be “rigged” by the government is the question, or even just the phrasing of it. One of the reasons the Australians voted against a republic was because the only system they were offered was a president appointed by parliament (or something similar), not a directly elected one.

    If a referendum on the Lords was phrased, “Should members of the Lords be democratically elected”, the answer would be YES. If the question was phrased, “Should the upper house be full of party-political career-politicians like the Commons” the answer would be NO.

    The third was referendums can be rigged is to keep having them until they return the answer the government wants. See the Irish votes on Lisbon. Of course, once they get the answer right, they stop holding referendums. If the public say no to an elected Lords, how long before the next referendum?

  10. 02/06/2010 at 3:00 am

    Baroness D’Souza;
    Indeed Britain is not the only nation-state in the world to close many of its life-supportive doors, not simply throughout Bank Holiday weekends, but every blessed weekend from 4pm Fridays to 0900am Mondays !

    Many a year I have needed a welfare drop-in centre to have a cuppa and an informal conversation, and just to feel neighbourly.

    Alas! life ceases when the workforce goes home !

    Now I’m a comfortably-pensioned octogenarian British (English) citizen, and as you will see from the timing of this reply, quite willing and able to sit at my voluntary workstation half the night to achieve and support this kind of two-way communication between serious and well-intentioned folk.

    Thank you. Keep up the good facilitation, please.

  11. Gareth Howell
    02/06/2010 at 9:29 am

    “does this suggest that most of you blog only at work or that you are all out and about pursuing hobbies?”

    It means that the moderators were on a four day holiday weekend, without saying so.

    I shall just read the E-tabloid/newspapers until November and forget about politics all together.

    Even Prescott is joining the HoL. So much for democracy.

  12. Baroness D'Souza
    baronessdsouza
    02/06/2010 at 8:01 pm

    Of course, I hadn’t thought that it was the moderators who weren’t at work!

    Other issues on referendums that you have raised are both complex and interesting and I will respond in due course, but have work to do now!

  13. 03/06/2010 at 2:59 am

    Baroness D’Souza, Lord Norton, et al, and various peoples;

    Clarification please, re what appears to be an eventual referendum issue about decreasing the number of hereditary and esotericly-appointed peers, and increasing the number of meritworthy peers by election, in the Upper House.

    Surely even meritworthy peers could be elected by The People, and not esotericly appointed by hidden powers-that-be ?

    Notwithstanding there being an evident need for a selection ‘tournament’to be run cooperatively by Academia, Parliament, and Media, to narrow-down long-lists of able-and-willing candidates into manageable and eventually ballot-paper friendly shortlists.

    Be that as it may, a main and glaring innovation is needed by The People, and needed before the people are called or required to become embroiled in constitutional, parliamentary, or political issues and contests:-
    First and foremost the people need Information, facts figures and factors, clarificational-discussion, cooperative needs-and-possible-hows recognition, and likewise cooperative win-win-win problem-solving; and plenty of time thereto;
    leading secondly into constructive submission-writing.

    This should be an essential and seriously strong democratic preparation, taking place well before politically-competitive issues-choosings, debatings, and polling-station votings.
    The latter three are already in place, but they generally kick in to the exclusion of the former, and become like domineering cuckoos in people’s longer-term essential lifesupports-nests.

    To deliver that preparation, people already need thereto some upwards comprehensional channels; channels to other people via Media, as well as to Parliaments and to any other appropriate Top-Body.

    These new channels are democratically necessary so that no cogent reasoning, precious life-experience, nor poor widow’s mite is turned away, nor allowed to slip away into darkness through cracks in the table or gaps between floorboards.

    • Gareth Howell
      04/06/2010 at 8:32 am

      The electoral colleges that are formed to “select” candidates for parliamentary seats, which become more corrupt as time goes by, for the government in office, are surely enough to do the job of choosing Lords for election for seven years?

      They do it for the EP which has rather more teeth, so why not for the HofL?

      I am always delighted by the quality of debate and the people who participate in them
      in the EP, rather less by the self selecting European Commissioners.

      What’s the problem?

  14. Gareth Howell
    04/06/2010 at 8:35 am

    The problem with Moderators not putting up the post straight away or giving any reply to the effect that it has been put up, is that a number of those, if not most, who do post, are lost in the ether, thinking that their submission has been ignored completely.

    If you don’t want new posters as evidenced now, that is the way to do it.

  15. Baroness D'Souza
    baronessdsouza
    06/06/2010 at 2:03 pm

    I hope the ‘moderators’ have taken note of your entirely sensible comments.

    It is also clear from your welcome comments that some kind of a public debate on the work of the House of Lords would not be a bad thing. However, a referendum may not be the way to go about it. Any other suggestions?

    • 07/06/2010 at 8:26 pm

      We all, high and low, need to practice not Debating (which is a win-lose contest often very inadequately informed) but Discussion.

      Now, since even discussion requires some highish level secondary education micro-skills, we first need to be enabled to practice focused-conversation; as cooperative people and not as competitive-politicians.

      Before that it would be wise to practice not ‘loose’ conversation but broadly-based conversation i.e. within a Subject area rather than more narrowly within a Topic area which, in turn, is broader-based than a specific Issue therein.

      Sujmmarising that: Focused-conversation first; Discussion second; Debating last: for every level of The People, not just for higher-up political-professionals party-members.

  16. Dave H
    06/06/2010 at 2:11 pm

    Perhaps engage the interest of the BBC’s politics department to do a documentary on the Lords? Cover the activities of a couple of peers, talk to members of the public who’ve had occasion to contact members of the Lords about legislation over the past year, that sort of thing. Show the House in action.

    Even the wash-up debate in April had some good points, with peers from all benches complaining about the process and that they weren’t being allowed time to properly scrutinise legislation.

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