Leading Article: The first step towards a working constitution

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The Independent Online
New lists of "working peers" were announced yesterday - which prompts an obvious question. If only a minority of members of the House of Lords work, what purpose do the rest serve? The simple answer is that non-working peers cling on in membership of this genteel club by the Thames because, despite recent spasms, we remain constitutionally inert, stuck in the aspic of tired tradition. Generations of political leaders - take a bow Jim Callaghan, curtsy Lady Thatcher - have wilfully refused to confront the anomalies ... and with them the sheer inefficiency of our system of making law.

The new lists are, in part, predictable party pay-off - who said we do not operate a spoils system in this country? Still, some of the names glitter. Maurice Saatchi, whatever we may think of his contributions to the art of political advertising, is a man of wide experience and taste. Provided he can bring himself to throw off the shackles of party decorum, his contributions to debate on, say, arts funding will be worth listening to. Liz Symons, in charge of that most anomalous of trade unions, the Association of First Division Civil Servants, has made herself a monitor of fair practice in Whitehall. Sir Richard Rogers is more than a renowned architect; he has interesting views on urban form, the future of London and urban living generally. Perhaps subsequent debates will give the lie to Bagehot's aphorism that the cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it.

But a few good names on party lists are no substitute for reform. The time has never been riper. If even the House of Windsor can muster a think- in on the shape of the monarchy as the century turns, then the political class of this country has no excuse finally to engage in the renewal and revitalisation of the institutions of governance. Reform of the Lords is not an act of vandalism or mindless "tinkering". The only object is to make malfunctioning, underperforming government work better.

There are three options. The first, outright abolition of the Lords, is made suspect by the way it would further concentrate political and legislative power in a single chamber, the record of which is so second- rate, as we have reported in recent days and months. Of course the House of Commons could be more fairly elected - reflecting more proportionately the party and attitudinal make-up of electors. But to make it the sole carrier of collective will would remove an opportunity for revision, and reflection, of a kind that a second chamber could offer. Bicameral government is the norm in the Western world, for the good reason that good government is perceived to be second-thoughts government. Most jurisdictions attempt in their second chambers to draw in what used to be called "bottom", a capacity to reflect which does not entirely correlate with senatorial age but is born of experience. You don't have to go all the way with Harold Macmillan in believing "calm deliberation untangles every knot" to welcome the retention of an upper chamber.

And if it is to stay as part of the legislative process it should be elected. The condition of modern democracy is a jealous one. If government is to be for the people and by the people, we cannot tolerate a second chamber based on the competing principles of aristocracy or autocracy. The House of Lords is a weird and wonderful hybrid of blood, executive will and patronage - plus a smattering of merit and whatever it is that the bench of Anglican bishops now bring to the party. (Even the Tories, pretended keepers of the Constitution, find it hard to justify the present composition of the Lords. It comes close to the position of those members of the pre-1832 Commons who argued that the fate of England depended on the continuing election of members for Old Sarum - an uninhabited mound outside Salisbury.)

Election matters - which is why Labour's short-term plan for the Lords is in many ways a worst-of-both-worlds solution: the chamber is retained as a part of the law-making procedure but remains unelected. Better by far to confront this choice: either emancipate the Lords from the formal business of law-making or else formalise the bicameral system and elect the members of the upper house.

A purely deliberative chamber - the third option - might, for example, have the right to call for papers and persons (as the parliamentary formula goes), even to have sight of proposals for law or the text of bills. Its findings would command attention because of their cogency and weight but it would have no formal share in making law. Such a chamber might well include the likes of Peter Gummer since, like it or not, PR people are now significant players. But it would need to draw on a pool of talent wider than party whips' wish lists. Its ranks would include rabbis and cardinals as well as bishops, company as well as permanent secretaries and, of course, more women.

But, attractive though aspects of such a proposal sound, it runs second- best to the creation in Britain of what exists in the United States as in Germany - a senate or legislative council, elected and possessing a plenitude of power but distinct from the house of representatives or national assembly below it. Elected for longer terms, elected from the regions or elected on principles of proportionality, all its members would be "working peers" - working at the business of collecting and spending the public's money, at making and monitoring the laws, at deliberating on the affairs and more accurately expressing the will of the peoples and nations of the United Kingdom than the present set-up possibly can. Let's hope yesterday's announcement is a weak but cheerful premonition of full- scale reform.