The House of Lords – the challenges ahead…

The new year will present lots of challenges, not least for government.  The main challenge wil remain the economy.  However, for Parliament there is a challenge – somewhat parochial but of great constitutional importance – and that is the attempt to replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber.  This is usually referred to, not least by the Goverment, as reform of the Lords whereas it is more accurately described as abolition. 

The Coalition is seeking to introduce a Bill to achieve this goal.  The Coalition Agreement stated the intention to introduce a draft Bill (although it referred to as a draft motion, reflecting the haste in which the agreement was constructed) by the end of 2010.  That timetable has slipped.  The latest estimate is that it will be published in the Spring.  It is then expected to be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of the two Houses.  This, it is accepted, is likely to take some time.

The timetable may well slip further.  I suspect that some of the issues still unresolved in the working group – a rather closed body – drawing up the Bill may remain unresolved for some time.  It may be that the whole process runs into the sand or rather, in the terminology frequently employed within the Palace, the long grass.

While the long grass is eminently to be preferred over any Bill being brought forward, it is dangerous to assume that the Bill will find its way there.  For some of us, vigilance is the keyword.  Eight years ago, Sir Patrick (now Lord) Cormack and I formed the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber.  We favour reform within the House in order to enable it to do a more effective job, but we are opposed to an elected second chamber.  The present chamber adds value to the political process.  An elected chamber, we contend, would not; indeed, we believe it would be value detracting.

We constitute a cross-party and cross-chamber group and are very active in pressing the case for retaining an appointed chamber.  We have been gratified not only by the support we draw from MPs and peers but also the support achieved in recent public debates, be it the Intelligence Squared debate in  November or the schools’ debate held in the chamber last month.  However, we need to press the case further.  It is not that easy, given that the issue is not exactly at the forefront of public consciousness (and no reason at the moment why it should be).  One of my tasks during 2011 is going to be to seek to mobilise activity among supporters outside Parliament.   When peers make the case for retaining an appointed chamber, they are open – whatever the merits of the argument – to accusations of being self-serving.  When the case is made by members of the public it carries more weight.  When the argument is explained, people tend to become much more supportive of the existing House.  The more we can mobilise supporters in the country, the less enthusiastic the Government will be to pursue a measure that will not be to the benefit of the country.


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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24 Responses to The House of Lords – the challenges ahead…

  1. ladytizzy says:

    “I’m sure we will have a great fanfare of reform on the centenary of the 1911 Parliament Act,” one senior figure said. “Thereafter it won’t be so much a case of kicking it into the long grass – we’ll be looking to park it in grass that is around the height of a giraffe.”

    Seems as if they have relegated you to “senior figure”. On second thoughts, maybe they see that as a promotion.

    The recent schools’ debate (won by Dagenham) was a cracking result but which of the national press ran the story? It’s all very well that you provide The Guardian with column inches but a bit of quid pro quo wouldn’t go amiss.

    What level of public involvement do you have in mind?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: The quote certainly isn’t from me. I don’t take things for granted. I take your point about the schools’ debate. I think the most important result is to show how debate can influence thinking, not least among teenagers, in support of an all-appointed House. I am working on the ripple effect: get some key supporters to make the case (through letters’ columns and the like) in order to influence others. The national media won’t be interested until a Bill appears, but there is considerable scope to utilise the regional and local media.

      Even though I was not the person quoted, I don’t mind being described as senior – as long as it is not equated with old! In my Department I was for a time the most senior member and one of the youngest.

  2. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,
    You state that the CESC believes in ” We favour reform within the House in order to enable it to do a more effective job, but we are opposed to an elected second chamber”.
    I think that this first part is very important: “We favour reform within the House in order to enable it to do a more effective job” as is the idea that you oppose specific things, Constitutional politics often depends on proclaimeing a path for change while still showing strenght in opposing the changes one does not wish to undergo. However, I mean proclaiming such a path before all of it appears to be a mere set of last-minute or desperate concessions, Perhaps a lecture series on how changes have occurred in Lords in the past would be one way of illustratin this alleged commitment to effective reform and then some popular summary of the results.

    • Lord Norton says:

      franksummers3ba: Thanks for some very pertinent observations. The CESC is responsible for the House of Lords Reform Bill (the Steel Bill) and we welcome the Leader’s Group examining the working practices of the House. We are keen to achieve change, including putting the appointments commission on a statutory basis and giving the House the power to expel members. I am keen to see various procedural changes, including a post-legislative scrutiny committee. I shall indeed by giving some lectures along the lines you touch upon, including the Stephenson Lecture in Glasgow later this month.

      • franksummers3ba says:

        Lord Norton,
        I will be attempting to follow these continued developments with interest. Thanks for the response, sounds like a worthy plan.

  3. Carl.H says:

    My Lord I fear you face a difficult task for numerous reasons. With legislation the way it is the other place holds all the power to enable reform and this is needed urgently. It is also the other place who in the publics opinion raises to the Lords, members of questionable honour and integrity, not to mention the sheer numbers.

    There are not enough members, it appears, that wish to communicate with the public possibly because we can be hard work and I feel this is a necessity given the position that the House is one of evidential scrutiny.

    I hope the House will negotiate this challenge but in doing so reform itself to something that is acceptable for even I at present have doubts about some parts. The theory of the House was good however the practice has become corrupted and this needs correcting urgently to carry on in anything near it`s present form.

    I am and always will be against an elected House for numerous reasons and shall always remain against the machinists holding sway over quality control. Neither prosecution or defence should be able to choose it`s judge.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: Many thanks. I don’t underestimate the challenge. It is important that we are seen as addressing any problems with the House, in terms of any errant members and in terms of size. Succeeding Prime Ministers are responsible for the size of the House. If the number of peers who take part in the Peers in Schools programme is anything to go by, we are not short of members willing to communicate with the public. It is eliciting invitations to speak that perhaps needs addressing. We are keen and willing to make our case.

  4. Dave Thawley says:

    Happy new year to you. I hope it beings you mainly what you want (apart from AV and perhaps electing the upper chamber 🙂 )

    To be honest the second house in my opinion has got to be elected some how. How can non elected people dictate policy to the rest of the population ? There is no legitimate reason I can think of for this being so. ‘They know best’ or ‘they are doing what is best for the population’ doesn’t count enough. The problem I can see seems to be how the house is elected. As long as having the same electoral process in both houses is allowed then the obvious way forward is to elect the upper house by STV. I wouldn’t want this to get in the way of us as a population obtaining proper democracy in the commons as well but STV seems the best way around. Perhaps a fair way would be to abolish party membership in the lords. i.e. no elected lord is allowed to be a member of a political party. Also no political party are allowed to advertise or promote any of the lords. Lobbying should also be restricted if not abolished for the lords. I think this would be the best way forward. I’m no expert and I know these ideas would cause problems but I am sure not following them would cause even more problems in getting anything like democracy adopted in the UK

    • Carl.H says:

      Dave whilst I think your ideas are interesting I have to disagree with the principle of an elected upper chamber.

      It is the commons who put forward this concept and one has to look at reasoning behind it. To my mind they are trying to remove an incumberant. It certainly isn`t so the people get something fairer else the present Government would dissolve itself as it`s policies were not voted for in anyway shape or form as it is a hybrid, a mongrel.

      I conside your non-partisan policy a good one, it is something I would like to see in the House. The parties already control the House which is wrong.

      The main reason we see this so called reform called for is the electorate are unhappy but it is not the Lords that they are unhappy with and the Commons is passing the buck trying to act angelic saying it must be them. There are problems in the Lords that need reform but those are caused by the Commons. Successive Governments have stuffed the House with their members in order to gain control. The Commons holds the power for reforms called for by the Lords yet does nothing. It is the Commons that wants control of the House.

      The upper chamber is one of scrutiny, of judgement on bills put forward it does NOT as you state dictate policy. The commons wish to control what is essentially a chamber of quality control. We have seen far too much legislation rebuffed by the Courts because it has been rushed through without due care to scrutiny, this is what occurs when the Lords is not allowed to do it`s job correctly.

      If the Commons passes a bill for an elected upper House do you believe it would be one of neutrality or in partisan favour ? Who in this Country holds the organisational ability to mount election campaigns ? The parties. So in effect what you`d end up with is either a mirror of the Commons or the opposite and remembering these members will have the legitimacy of the electorate they would also therefore have the power to deny the commons.

      How would such elections take place ? Would it National ? So everyone has a list of say 2000 to choose from or would it be on constituent boundaries thereby representing the electorate by constituency as in the commons. Who chooses the candidates ? What if you were presented with Lord Mandelson, Lord Prescott and Lady Thatcher as a choice ? I`d abstain because there is no choice.
      O.k. so we go your way and have non-partisan candidates, Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard and Fred Smith. Who chose them as the prime candidates ? What will I know about them ? If I wanted to be elected I wouldn`t tell 100% of the truth….That would be idiotic wouldn`t it ? Don`t we see those promises every election ? So we`ll be fed manure and kept in the dark as usual.

      I can see your idealism but it doesn`t work. An elected upper House would be bad for this Country, it would be contrived by the Commons to be the least inhibiting to it`s wishes, controlled by it and unable to give fair scrutiny. The elected upper house of your idealism would be a far cry from what the commons will give you. What the commons intends is a limited choice of their choosing and to try to kid you that it would be more democratic.

      In all honesty this is merely one part of our system that has eroded over time the power of another equal part trying to now abolish it. The Lords may not be elected but they do listen to evidence from everyone, the Commons listens only to Party policy.

      Being elected doesn`t make you right or good, Mugabe elected, Hitler elected, Thatcher elected, Heath elected, G.W.Bush elected, et al

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dave Thawley: Carl.H has provided a very full response. He identifies the fundamental flaw in your contention: ‘how can non-elected people dictate to the rest of the population?’ The simple answer is that we cannot. The House cannot act unilaterally. The Commons is the elected chamber and can get its way. We are not the elected chamber and cannot get our way: if the Commons objects, it can ultimately employ the Parliament Acts. In practice, it rarely comes to that. The role of the Lords is to help improve legislation and I think the House does that rather well. The Commons could not cope without it, since we shoulder the burden of a good part of the legislative process. An elected second chamber may well not wish to engage in the mundane task of detailed scrutiny – there’s not much political mileage in it – and would potentially add little of value.

      The last extensive public opinion poll (undertaken for the Constitution Unit at University College London) showed that the public give priority to the tasks fulfilled by the present House over having an elected chamber.

      You may find of interest, as may other readers, the article by Peter Oborne in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:

    • djb13 says:

      Whilst I love the principles behind your proposals for non-partisanship and the ban on lobbying, I don’t think they’ll work.

      If you look at the non-partisan elections for the Nebraska State Legislature, you find that parties have candidates and nominations procedures, they’re just ‘hidden’ – parties will find ways around or loopholes in the law. Also, you’d probably find that individuals who do win elections will run on a single, popular, populist, local issue; making the chamber very parochial, and probably very socially regressive.

      I’d also imagine that this wouldn’t be awfully democratic, because people will win on the basis of populist local issues, but then vote in a way very different to the local population on other issues (e.g., you’ll find Marxists running ‘infiltration’ campaigns – not that I have an inherent problem with elected Marxists, besides the fact I disagree with them, but you’ll probably find they win disproportionate seats. Lest you dismiss this as doom-mongering, if you’ll allow me the indulgence of an uncharacteristically long post, I have done some primary research of how independents, and pseudo-independents win under FPTP. Caroline Lucas won Brighton Pavilion on the basis of local housing issues, not a national Green Party mandate (and don’t get me wrong, I was very happy when Dr. Lucas won her seat, but I can’t claim that she won it in the same manner as most other MPs). Dr. Richard Taylor won the seat of Wyre Forest on the basis of a local campaign to save the Kiddeminster A&E unit. Whilst I think that it’s a great example of local political organisation and mobilisation, and a point of view I have a lot of sympathy for, he took a soft Lib Dem whip in Parliament, which given that the seat is at best a Lab-Con marginal, and really a Tory safeish seat, not really the ideal choice of the local populace. Of the independents and 1 MP parties who won seats since the 2000s, George Galloway had a semi-proper mandate (certainly no worse than many major party MPs), and Dai Davies had a better mandate (in my opinion) than most MPs. That’s a 50% success record, which isn’t fantastic.

      On the topic of banning lobbying (and I’ll go back to my more typical curt style), how do you distinguish local delegations, and formal lobbying? You might say that companies are banned, but this excludes local businesses (and presumably their owners). If the restrictions is that only local residents can meet with peers, then what employees who commute in; for instance my parents commute from Hertfordshire to London, and in all honesty are probably more affected by London-based policy than Hertfordshire based policy; so they couldn’t lobby their de-facto local peers. Large businesses would also (I imagine) ‘hire’ local residents to lobby on their behalf. Or, would you ban all forms of lobbying, in which case, peers would be absolutely dependent on government and the media for all their information, which would leave them essentially unable to substantively challenge the government.

  5. Chris K says:

    As I’ve promised before, I’m quite prepared, when the time comes, to stand outside Parliament with a banner*. If the weather’s nice I might even be able to bring some chums with me.

    Any suitable slogans? Try as I might I’ve not been able to create any catchy acronyms out of “No” “Lords” “Reform”

    *if the Met. let us, of course.

    • djb13 says:

      It’s a bit hard to get people really fired up about Lords reform, on either side. I wonder if anyone has any suggestions to make Lords reform sexy (so to speak)?

      • Lord Norton says:

        It is always difficult to generate a good slogan for the purposes of holding on to something. It’s much easier to dream up slogans if you are anti something. Perhaps I should hold a competition for the best slogan.

      • franksummers3ba says:

        Lord Norton,
        Perhaps ad campaign tag lines suit your purpose better:
        “Would you rather have the surgeon who was first in his class or who was voted most popular? Lords – surgeons of Law”

        “Would you rather have the airline pilot who was best at shaking hands on the jet bridge or the one who had the best record as a pilot? Lords- Skilled experts in a scheduled route set by your elected MPs”.

        “Bob’s solicitor was very likeable. Jane’s solicitor prevailed. Lords – Solicitors for the British Constitution.”

        “For the 89% or so of you who are not gay. Isn’t difference part of the fun even if we are not French? Lords-the Chamber with a difference”.

        “The House of Lords: (Three line Bio of a Peer) Photo of Peer — Where exceptional quality is acceptably normal”.

      • Lord Norton says:

        frankwsummers3ba: Many thanks. I think your last one is especially good.

  6. charlesbarry says:

    Lord Norton, here is one constitutional implication of a wholly elected House of Lords probably not considered by its supporters:

    Suppose it came to pass that the Conservatives held a majority in the Commons and after a recent election, Labour ended up with an overall majority in the Lords.

    What would be the result if Labour successfully passed a vote of no confidence, rejected a budget (as it would probably feel entitled to vote on finance bills again) or rejected the Queen’s Speech?

    • Lord Norton says:

      charlesbarry: Good questions, but difficult to answer for one simple reason. It is difficult to know precisely what powers an elected second chamber would have. It would almost certainly demand more than those of the present House. It would be difficult to resist calls for greater powers. The House would certainly be in a position to repudiate existing conventions, such as the Salisbury convention: the Commons would not be in a position to do anything about that. It is unlikely that the second chamber would be in a position to bring down a government on a vote of confidence (that would almost certainly remain the preserve of the lower House), but it is not clear what would happen in respect of its power in relation to money bills. The current House is limited by virtue of the Parliament Act 1911 but that was enacted in order to ensure the primacy of the elected House over the unelected House. If the second chamber is elected, the rationale for the provisions of the 1911 Act is essentially destroyed. The second chamber may not be in a position to bring the Govermnent down, but it could make it extremely difficult for it to get its business.

      • djb13 says:

        You can also find that political bodies will tend to try to over-reach their stated aims if given the opportunity. An elected upper chamber may well be banned from bringing down the government in a confidence motion, but may well simply filibuster the government’s legislation. Even with the Parliament Act, this creates a year-long lame-duck session at the end of each Parliament, and increases Parliamentary sclerosis, which is already (in my opinion) at unacceptable levels. As it is, the chamber already does engage in minor filibustering – albeit slowing rather than halting the government’s programme (although that’s not because there’s a Labour majority, but rather because of the remarkably open procedures of the House). As is, the House can claim no mandate to slow the government’s work, so must ‘earn’ it’s own mandate by making reasoned objections to the government’s work. Obviously an elected House could claim a mandate to filibuster. A government without a legislative programme is fairly hopeless, and may resign to call a general election. Thus, an elected second chamber, unable to call a vote-of-confidence, could still bring down a government.

  7. ladytizzy says:

    Making a less than exhaustive check on the House of Lords Appointments Committee’s own appointments made during the past 10 years, and then comparing this list with LotB bloggers reveals:

    a) five out of the 26 contributing bloggers were appointed by HOLAC
    b) they are all female
    c) they have submitted roughly 20% of all posts (or 40% if Lord Norton’s posts are omitted fom the count!)

    No idea what, if anything, this has to do with the price of a loaf – I’m bored with England trying to get the last wickets.

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: Well researched. It perhaps reflects the greter number of women in the House. Of the cross-bench peers nominated by the the Appointments Commission since its inception, I gather about 50 per cent have been been female.

  8. franksummers3ba says:

    Lady Tizzy,
    The rules on the current LOTB are perhaps illustrative of an effort to promote a certain set of directions which has evolved over time. The same is true of the evolving set of bloggers. Perhaps in some ways LOTB has turned out to be more than many anticipated. But there has certainly been development and evolution over time.
    The rules seem more or less revelatory depending upon one’s point of view but nevertheless can be see in a context which includes an historic election, an historic Lib-Con coallition, an historic set of street riots, an historic discussion as to the nature of Lords itself and one could keep going,
    “1. Debate should be lively but also constructive and respectful.
    2. Don’t incite hatred on the basis of race, religion, gender, nationality, age or sexuality or other personal characteristic.
    3. Don’t swear, use hate-speech or make obscene or vulgar comments.
    4. Don’t break the law. This includes libel, condoning illegal activity and contempt of court (comments which might affect the outcome of an ongoing or approaching court case).
    5. Don’t submit comments which are substantially material from another website, publication, news feed or blog. Clearly attribute any content from another website or publication or it could constitute a breach of copyright.
    6. Don’t engage in ‘spamming’. Don’t advertise or promote products or services.
    7. If you are under 16, please get permission from a parent or guardian before commenting on this blog.
    8. Don’t impersonate or falsely claim to represent a person or organisation.
    9. Don’t post in a language other than English. (We hope in the future to be able to support translation.)
    10. Protect your privacy and that of others. Please don’t post private addresses, phone numbers, email addresses or other online contact details.
    11. Stay on-topic. Please don’t post messages that are unrelated to this blog.
    12. Finally, please keep it brief. Comments should be no longer than 250 words and preferably a lot less.”

    I think it has been useful to have Lord Soley and Lord Norton do what they did for as long as they did the way they did it. But the truth is that it was a throw back to the days of actual civilization. Today people burrow in with those that agree with them and muse in safety on the few facts they wish to see. That of course has always been normal for humans. Which is why civilized progress against entropy comes from unusual settings mostly.

    I personally think it perhaps best if all major socieities in the context of Western tradition admit that they can’t afford to keep up any claim to that tradition any longer.

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