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06 July 2011

House of Lords reform

The government published proposals to reform the House of Lords in May 2011, with deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, setting out plans to replace the current mixture of hereditary and appointed peers with an 80 per cent elected chamber.

The white paper and draft bill are the latest effort to reform an institution that has undergone numerous revisions since 1911, yet despite this retains many hallmarks of a medieval parliament. All of the major parties raised the prospect of reforming the House of Lords in their 2010 election manifestos, and the coalition agreement aimed to "bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation".

Both houses of parliament have recently debated the proposals, with the House of Lords, perhaps unsurprisingly, being largely opposed to the plans which would enforce their retirement. Former speaker of the House of Commons, Baroness Boothroyd, contributed to the debate in forthright fashion: "The draft bill before us confirms my worst fears. Never in my experience has an institution at the heart of the British constitution been marked down for destruction on such spurious grounds. Never in all my years in public life has the bicameral role of our parliament been so wantonly put at risk by such disregard of the nation's best interests." 

The draft bill envisages a second chamber that is considerably smaller than the current House of Lords, with 300 members as well as a small complement of bishops from the Church of England. The members would be elected in thirds every five years, so every 15 years the chamber would have a completely new composition. At each election 80 members would be selected through proportional representation, and 20 appointed. Each member would then serve a single 15-year term without the option of re-election. The vote would use the single transferable vote through multi-member constituencies, with candidates ranked according to preference. The white paper anticipates that the constituencies for these elections will be similar in size to the 12 regions used for the European Parliament. 

A reformed chamber would maintain a place for bishops from the Church of England, however, in keeping with the overall downsizing their number will be reduced from 26 to 12. Aside from retaining places for the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the Bishops of Winchester, Durham and London, the Church of England would be free to decide how to fill the remaining seven seats. The bishops would hold their seats for the period of their appointment and the regular electoral cycle would not affect them, apart from the initial gradual reduction as elections are introduced. The government would also have the power to appoint a limited number of ministers as members of the House of Lords. Their appointment would also be tied to their office so would relinquish their seat when their job comes to an end.  

The government intend the reformed House of Lords to have the same power and position within the legislative process as it currently does. However, questions have been raised about whether this will be sustainable once elections take place and democratic legitimacy is conferred which is currently absent. This may be particularly acute as many consider a proportional system to more accurately reflect the electorate's opinion. During the debate in the House of Commons Mr Clegg insisted that the relationship would not change. He said: "The asymmetry between the two chambers rests not only on the Parliament Acts but on the different mandates, different terms and different electoral cycles of the two Houses."

Dr Julian Lewis MP spoke in defence of the current House of Lords, pointing out that: "In the upper House there are not only experts but people who can make changes to bills that would be whipped out of existence if they were introduced in the lower House." Paul Murphy MP suggested: "It is completely logical that we, too, should have a referendum on reform of the House of Lords." 

The draft bill and white paper will now be considered by a joint committee made up of MPs and peers. This committee is due to report by 29 February 2012, following which the government will introduce a bill with elections taking place for the first time in 2015. This time scale seems optimistic and it would come as no great surprise if the committee took longer, the government waited to respond and a Bill did not make it through parliament. There are few indicators that the government will be willing to expend political energy and time on a topic that is of little popular concern, especially while economic, welfare and public service matters dominate the agenda. After all, the 1911 Parliament Act was only ever a temporary measure.