Leading Article: Putting the Upper House in order

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'THE CURE for admiring the House of Lords,' remarked Walter Bagehot, 'is to go and look at it.' This past week the flaws in the Upper House have been exposed yet again, strengthening the case for a reformed, democratically elected second chamber. On Wednesday, peers put on a show of healthy independence. They defied the Commons by amending the rail privatisation Bill a second time. But the next day they ignominiously backed down: after the Commons again threw out the amendments, peers gave way and the Bill was passed.

This half-heartedness is typical. During 14 years of radical right-wing government, the second chamber has shrunk from using its power even to delay legislation. Ironically, a more robust Lords would probably have stopped the poll tax and saved Margaret Thatcher from herself. In fact, the Upper House has proved quite inadequate as a check on the ruling party that dominates the Lower House. This institutional weakness is not new. For more than a century and a half the Lords' influence on legislation has been progressively eroded, usually after conflicts with the left. Today, it can at best delay a Bill for only a year, and that power is confined to non-financial legislation.

The reluctance of the Lords to exercise even this sanction is rooted in their illegitimacy. Hereditary peers drain the Upper House of authority and undermine the credibility of working life peers. The Lords know they are tolerated only as long as they no more than tinker with legislation. Rebellions raise the spectre of abolition. So the two chambers collude in preserving an emasculated Upper House. Not surprisingly, after this week's retreat, the Prime Minister announced yesterday that he did not plan to present proposals for reforming the Lords.

The pretence of having an effective second chamber is almost worse than having a unicameral system. If the Lords did not exist, Britain would probably long ago have ceased to accept the first-past-the- post electoral system for the Commons. People would have recognised the danger that this system could give control of the Government to an extremist party supported by only a minority of voters.

Instead, the country is stuck with an unrepresentative elected Commons that has coerced its supposed watchdog. The creation of life peers, begun in 1958, was meant to increase the Lords' diversity and independence. It has been partly successful, but has also further enhanced the Prime Minister's powers of patronage.

Highlighting the illegitimacy and powerlessness of the House of Lords should not obscure the sterling work that many peers do. They are often far more scrupulous than the Commons in examining legislation. Peers frequently bring more expertise and experience of government to this scrutiny than do members of the Commons. But as long as the second house does not enjoy an electoral mandate it will continue to be largely ignored by the public and the Government.

Any reform must settle two issues: the role of the second chamber and its composition. The reformed chamber should have sufficient powers to delay potentially divisive legislation. Two years might be a sensible period. This would effectively require radical measures to be introduced early in a parliament, so they would have to have been detailed in the party manifesto rather than raised as a mid-term afterthought.

The hereditary principle should be abolished. It could be replaced by an electoral system plus a way of appointing the great, the good, experts and the interesting. Terms of office should probably be longer than in the Commons. Perhaps a third of the members could seek re- election every couple of years to maintain accountability while preventing sudden swings in membership.

This has been a bad year for Parliament. If its dignity, authority and reputation are to be restored, it must put its second house in order.