Prompted by the publication of the Coalition Government's Draft Bill, and the subsequent debate that has ensued in response to the proposals, ResPublica is pleased to launch "Our House: Reflections on Representation and Reform in the House of Lords", a compendium that draws together civic and institutional leaders, experts and commentators to reflect on the opportunity for a House of Lords that best embodies British society.
With contributions from across the political spectrum and beyond, including Bishop Tim Stevens, Lord Adebowale, Lord Wei, Sir Stephen Bubb, Frank Field MP and Professor Roger Scruton, the publication explores how the House of Lords can best uphold and communicate the views and values of civil society, setting out conclusions and recommendations for an alternative proposal for its reform. The compendium has been launched on 29th February 2012, 3pm in Committee Room 2, House of Lords, Westminster, London SW1A 0PW.
participants included a number of the contributors to ResPublica’s
collection of essays:
Harper MP, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform
The Rt Hon
Frank Field MP DL
The Rt Hon
The Lord Low of Dalston
Political Correspondent, The Daily Telegraph
Milbank, Chair of Trustees, The ResPublica Trust
Professor John Milbank opened the
discussion with a crucial question: “How can we make the House of
Lords more representative without losing its critical function?”. In
light of this, it was observed that the Draft Reform Bill as it
stands poses a significant challenge. It was acknowledged that if
implemented it would not only risk compromising the representative
function of the Commons, but also the democratic legitimacy of the
Lords and its check on the executive.
The question of whether there is a real
public appetite for Lords reform was hotly debated. While on the one
hand it was argued that given the key principle that those who make
the laws of the land ought to be elected, public opinion was not an
issue given the archival surveys which reflect that 22% of the public
said the Upper House should be abolished, 6% said it should operate
under a system of appointment and 60% said that at least half should
be elected. On the other hand, as Frank Field MP argued, “personal
experience” was “more than a non-issue” and that the real
challenge is that democracy tends to be viewed “only through the
prism of elections.”
It was generally agreed that the Second
Chamber should be a chamber of interests and areas and that at
present it is both lacking in both of these. Further, Frank Field MP
approved that this should provide a fruitful opportunity for the Big
Society to be given legislative effect.
A significant issue that was raised in
the discussion of the challenges presented by the Draft Reform Bill,
concerned the incoherency in moving to an elected chamber without
first discussing the relative balance of power between the two Houses
and the purpose and role of the House of Lords itself.
Election in the House of Lords
There followed an extended discussion
on the propriety and practicality of introducing an elected element
into the House of Lords, in which questions over the democratic
accountability in electing peers for 15 year terms from political
parties, and whether this would result in the same career politicians
lacking in the necessary experience and expertise required for a
revising chamber, were raised. In this context concerns over the
duplication of the Commons with no added value, the unpopularity with
the public, increased politicisation and the loss of the chambers’
professional qualities were voiced.
It was acknowledged that historically,
popular reactions to electoral reform have not been very encouraging.
Moreover, that discussion had thus far been limited to one system for
electing people was widely perceived as problematic.
In light of the above matters, it was
agreed that a midway approach should be fashioned as an alternative
which engages the public and reinvigorates the Upper House. This
would ensure that legitimacy would be restored through non-partisan
elections. Phillip Blond argued that “if we want a plural system we
need different systems to get a democratic House”. At the same
time, reform should take into account our constitutional legacy as a
basis for organic representation.
The Critical Function of the
House of Lords
The question of whether an elected
Second Chamber would extend the interest and power of the executive
was a pertinent one, in light of the little discussion which has
taken place on precisely how electoral reform would improve the
proper functioning of the Second Chamber. Countering this argument,
it was suggested that electoral reform would strengthen the
democratic authority of the Lords and Parliament over all. And that
while the relationship between the two houses would indubitably
change over time, the legislative framework would remain the same.
Although it is questionable as to how this would work in real terms.
Lord Paul Tyler, member of the Joint
Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, said the Committee
has acknowledged the democratic deficit in the status quo; with “70%
of those active members in the House of Lords being political
nominees.” As such it is carefully thinking about the
practicalities encompassed in reform. Despite concerns that 15 year
election cycles by virtue of the position of candidates’ positions
elsewhere, there was a sense that area based representation will
reinvigorate our democracy over time.
In response to the question of how to
avoid classes of peers emerging, increased competition and turf wars,
it was suggested that this was the point behind ResPublica’s Hybrid
House proposals and the virtue of an indirect system. Moreover,
another pervasive concern was that of the cost of a majority elected
House, not merely terms of increased politicization and a lack of
added value, but also in terms of a representational deficit. One of
the qualities of the House as it stands is in its representation of
minorities who, due to a lack of concentration in any one area of the
country, would find it increasingly difficult to hold representation
in an elected second chamber. As Phillip Blond mentioned, Lord Wei
draws our attention to his representative role on behalf of the
British Chinese, who despite being the third largest minority group
in the UK, are widely distributed and would therefore be challenged
to find support for an elected member in the Commons.
ResPublica welcomed this opportunity to
host such a topical discussion amidst the continuing debate
surrounding the Coalition Government’s draft House of Lords Reform
Bill. For further information, please contact Annalisa Plachesi, Events and Partnerships Co-Ordinator, at annalisa.plachesi@