Lord Steel: Most of my fellow peers accept the need to end the indefensible

A House of 450 members could be elected in thirds for 15 years after each general election

Lord Steel
Sunday 24 June 2012 10:47

I have been living with Lords reform ever since I was a student of constitutional law at Edinburgh University and currently we are in a right fankle. The Government is going to redraft its proposed reform Bill after it was severely mauled both by a Joint Committee of the Houses and more so by the "Alternative Report" signed by half its members. It now goes to the Commons where it may founder as badly as the 1968 reform attempts.

Meantime, my own Lords Bill is due to go before Parliament at the end of this month. It is limited to the three purposes: 1) encouraging peers to retire instead of hanging in there for life; 2) removing those who rarely attend; 3) removing those convicted of serious offences.

Sadly, to get the Bill through I abandoned both a new appointments system and ending the entry of hereditary peers. But at least it is a modest start in reducing numbers. It is untrue to suggest that the Lords are unwilling to reform. Most of us accept the need to end the indefensible – the patronage system of appointments and entry into the House of Lords by heredity.

If the Government had any sense in their determination to create an elected house they would be looking to achieve radical democratic reform while avoiding the four dangers inherent in their draft Bill.

These dangers are: 1) conflict between two elected Houses; 2) territorial senators threatening the role of constituency MPs; 3) the expense of another election and the running costs of a full-time salaried and staffed Upper House; 4) the loss of experience and expertise among independent peers – or the mess of a hybrid House. It should be possible to create a fully elected chamber which avoids those four pitfalls.

A House of some 450 members could be elected in thirds for 15 years, with elections taking place immediately after each general election with the Electoral Commission deciding how many representatives each party was entitled to according to the proportionality of the election result.

The electorate would be MPs, MEPs and members of the three devolved parliaments. Simple, inexpensive, and likely to produce a less Londoncentric chamber than at present. Some 34 other parliaments around the world do something similar to create an Upper Chamber.

Such a fundamental, democratically reformed Upper Chamber would maintain the existing revising role, be part time and unpaid as at present, though needing tougher declaration of interest rules than currently exists. It would retain the existing powers and conventions. I also hope it would be called a Senate and that so-called "Lords" such as myself could be spared the embarrassment of the title.

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