Andreas Whittam Smith: Expel the deadbeats, but preserve the independents

No single party should command a majority in the House of Lords, however dominant in the Commons
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The Independent Online

At last, the Jack Straw I used to work with and respect - when he was Home Secretary and I was chief film censor - has returned. As Leader of the House of Commons, he has produced a first-class paper on House of Lords reform - which is not to say that I agree with all of it.

But enough of it. In between these two jobs, Mr Straw was Foreign Secretary, and during that time my admiration for him was completely blighted by his prominent involvement in the worst foreign policy mistake for 50 years, the invasion of Iraq.

That no single party should command an overall majority in the House of Lords, no matter how great its dominance of the House of Commons, is the most important principle advanced in Mr Straw's paper. It makes permanent what has been the case since 1999. It ratifies a major constitutional innovation.

In effect, a House of Lords where no party dominates is a slowing-down mechanism. It would rarely provide an easy ride for Bills coming to it from the House of Commons. And given that the pace of politics has accelerated in recent years as a result of media pressure, with the consequence that an increasing volume of legislation, often poorly prepared, is put before Parliament, this would be a valuable check.

But just how considerable the scope for further reflection would be depends upon the results of a parallel process not covered by Mr Straw's paper, the codifying of the powers of the Upper House to block or revise legislation from the Commons.

For Mr Straw, the chief task of the Second Chamber is to play a role in the preparation of legislation. I prefer an older definition, which is that the principal function of Parliament - both Houses - is to hold government to account. To return to Iraq as an example, it has been a great defect of our Parliamentary system that the Government has been able for months on end to block debate of a policy that is causes the deaths or injury of British soldiers nearly every day of the week.

And this desire to downgrade scrutiny of the executive takes me back to the very first sentence of Mr Straw's paper, where he states that the objective is to produce a set of proposals that "are acceptable to a wide cross-section of the three political parties, the cross-bench peers and the bishops". To which I would add, "and likely to command support from a general public more interested in the performance of government than in new laws".

Mr Straw proposes two measures to ensure balance between the political parties. He endorses an earlier proposal that the proportion of independent members in the reformed House of Lords should be at least 20 per cent. And he supports the notion that the elected portion of the House (for he recommends a mixture of elected and appointed members) should be chosen by means of a proportional electoral system. In turn, this would mean that electors would be asked to vote in super-constituencies much larger than those which serve the House of Commons for lists of candidates chosen by the political parties. And out of the names on these lists, electors might be able to express a preference for one rather than another.

I dislike party lists. In the first place, to get on to the list, party members would have to spend their time cosying up the party leaders to make sure that they are included, preferably in a high position. To achieve this, loyalty would be all that mattered. It is a system that lends itself to corruption.

Second, it makes little or no provision for people standing as independents. Mr Straw seems to believe that independent members should enter the reformed House of Lords only by nomination and not by election. I think this is wrong. An elected independent member of the Upper House would command great respect.

There is a further proposal that, so far as independent members are concerned, might not have the intended effect. It arises from Mr Straw's laudable desire to reduce the size of the House of Lords from its present 741 members, of which the average attendance is just under 400, to around 450 members. In turn this would require, Mr Straw writes, "full-time membership to be the normal expectation and that some form of remuneration would be needed to support this".

This is fine for professional politicians who have nothing else to do, but it would rule out many well qualified independents whose benefit to the Upper Chamber arises not only from their existing experience and knowledge but also from their daily immersion in non-political fields of activity.

All these matters need further discussion. Meanwhile, we can applaud the momentum that Mr Straw is developing. It is hoped to complete the reforms in time for their application at the next general election. Meanwhile there is still much to play for in terms of the proportion of elected to appointed members. I am glad to note too that the reduction in the size of the Second Chamber will mean that many of the present deadbeats will be expelled along with the remaining hereditary peers.

At the same time, Mr Straw proposes that the automatic link between the peerage and membership of the House of Lords should come to an end. The peerage would continue as an honour, but unconnected with a seat in Parliament.

Welcome back, Mr Straw.

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