The credibility of a reformed second chamber will depend on the extent of its composition and its powers. - Justin Santiago
The British Parliament consists of an upper and lower house, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Together they form the legislature and although the Commons is more influential being a democratically elected body, the Lords plays an important part in initiating controversial bills and revising legislation and keeping a check on Government by scrutinising its activities. The Lords has a wide range of experience and is able to provide a source of independent expertise, uninfluenced by party whips. The Lords also has a judicial function although this will not be covered in depth.
The reform of the Lords came about because of a crisis of legitimacy. As the Commons is a democratically elected body, and at least in theory represents the people of the country, the Lords is not and because of this is not seen as having the right to overturn the decisions of the Commons.
The Lords has had its wings clipped first in 1911 ending their power to reject bills and again in 1949 when the power to delay non money bills was curtailed from 2 years to 1 year. This is obviously far less threatening to the government than a defeat in the House of Commons, which can kill a bill and a policy. A defeat in the Lords can be overturned with the consent of MPs as what happened with the European Parliemantary Elections Act 1999 and the Sexual Offences (Ammendment) Act 2000 which bypassed the House of Lords to receive the Royal Assent are the. Finally the Salisbury Convention if followed states that the Lords’ will not block the government from carrying legislation which would deliver a manifesto commitment, as this was what they were elected to do, and to prevent it would interfere in the democratic process, which would discredit the Lords and may lead to their disbandment. Still the effect of delay would send a message to the country that such legislation did not get their support.
The Lords it has had its composition altered to be more representative and hence more legitimate to act as a check and balance against the House of Commons and the Executive. This was the impetus for the removal of all but 92 hereditary peers through the House of Lords Act in 1999. These peers would sit in the House of Lords until they passed away and their titles would not pass to their heirs. However the solution did not in any way add legitimacy to the institution. The hereditary peers were replaced by life peers who were appointed by the Crown on the advice of Prime Minister. This has allowed the influence of the government to become even stronger in the House of Lords by ensuring that government gets its key legislation through Parliament.
There have been moves by the government to make the House of Lords fully elected or at least 80% elected with a cap on tenure at 15 years. Other suggestions by the Wakeham Commission have been to establish an independent Appointments Commission be established to appoint members. The commission would guarantee that at least 20 per cent of the members are not affiliated to one of the major parties and ensure that gender ratios are improved as well as different members to reflect different interests. It also put a limit on the term of peerage to 15 years and remuneration should be adequate to encourage attendanc. The variety of members, especially minority representatives could add to its legitimacy.
However merely by being elected does not imply legitimacy. There are several advantages to not being elected. The House of Lords prides itself on being less partisan than the Commons, and on the fact that its debates are, as it sees it, of a higher quality than the political point-scoring of the lower house. Party affiliations are far less strong. A Labour peer, for example, is far more likely to vote against his party than a Labour MP. Many members are crossbench peers, who do not have any party affiliation at all. There are no devices to curtail debates such as motion of closure, guillotine or kangaroo. There is security of tenure and members are free to talk openly. The Lords have considerable expertise in specialized areas to debate bills. The Lords also have far fewer opportunities for advancement, and cannot be ousted once they are in place. This means that, although the parties have whips in the Lords, they have far less influence, and have to cajole, rather than threaten, members into voting with the party line.
Because of the weaker party structure, the major party, and therefore the government, has far less control of the House of Lords than it does over the Commons. Labour has never had a majority in the Lords, and until 2005 was not even the largest grouping. In addition, many of the Labour Lords are considered to represent “Old Labour”, and cannot be trusted to vote with the Blair administration. In order to pass bills through the Lords, the government must rely on the support, or at least abstention, of a significant number of members from other groups. Inevitably, this means that the government suffers far more defeats in the Lords than the Commons; almost 400 divisions have gone against the cabinet since it took office in 1997, compared to only a handful in the Lower House (3 as of February 2006). Debates in the Commons, tend to be dominated by party considerations, and many things are left unsaid for fear of offending the whips or damaging chances of re-election or promotion.
It may be a better idea to retain the House of Lords that is substantially different in terms of composition and powers in order that there is a balance between being fully elected and being fully selected.
Under the reforms it is likely the Upper House minus the Law Lords would become a tool of government policy and would be under the orders of an elected dictatorship.A powerless upper house (lower case emphasized) as in Canada and Malaysia would be reduced to a rubber stamp. It would be better that it be abolished as in Singapore.
- Justin Santiago
- Justin Santiago, BAppSc (Hons), MBA, LLB (Hons) comes from a journalism, market research, intellectual property and strategic communications consulting background. Now based in Melbourne he spends his time advising businesses on how to communicate to their customers as well as writing on various subjects of interest in this blog.
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