Writing for Central Lobby, Tory MP John Stevenson welcomes the Government's plans for Lords reform, saying they will establish 'a distinct and elected second chamber that feels empowered to scrutinise and question the government of the moment'.
The Government has finally published its Bill to reform the House of Lords. Inevitably, the Bill that emerged was one of compromise – but there is nothing wrong with that. What really matters is that the compromise is effective and leads to a democratic House of Lords that enhances our parliamentary system.
At the moment we have a second chamber dominated by life peers appointed by Prime Ministers past and present – with a few hereditary peers (a token recognition of the role they once played), and some Bishops. As a result the House has little authority or legitimacy, and it rarely troubles the government of the day.
It is right that proper reform should move away from a system of privilege and patronage, and towards democratic legitimacy; whilst at the same time ensuring Commons primacy, and I believe this is what the Government’s Bill achieves.
The Bill would see a House of Lords that has 450 members; of whom 80% would be elected and 20% appointed. This would ensure a substantive elected element whilst retaining what many argue to be the strength of the House of Lords; namely an expertise element, reflected through appointment.
Elections would be held on a different basis than those for the Commons, producing a different species of legislature. A separate and distinctive identity for the House of Lords would be further emphasised by having 15 year non-renewable terms, with elections being held in thirds every 5 years at the same time as General Elections. Longer, non-renewable terms would allow members of the House of Lords to take a more farsighted view, with far weaker party influence. The reformed House of Lords would certainly be no Commons mark II – and nor should it be.
The most important effect of the Bill is that it results in a House of Lords that has a proper democratic legitimacy, allowing it to properly fulfil its role as an effective second chamber. The House of Commons would still retain its primacy, with the Prime Minister and senior cabinet members primarily coming from the Commons; and any dispute between the two houses would ultimately see the House of Commons getting its way through the Parliament Acts.
The difference, though, would be that a reformed House of Lords with a greater democratic mandate will be more assertive. This is no bad thing – indeed it should be welcomed. Such assertiveness will likely lead to the Commons reviewing its own role within Parliament; but it will be the effect on the executive that is most pronounced and most important. The likely consequence will be a more assertive Parliament, better (and maybe less) legislation, and an executive that will have to pay far more attention to the will of Parliament as a whole.
A distinct and elected second chamber that feels empowered to scrutinise and question the government of the moment can only be a good thing for a 21st Century democracy.