The decision to leave the European Union is one which should cause us to reflect on our own institutions and the framework of our democracy. As the nature of our politics changes, so to must the institutions which claim to serve and represent us. Arguably the House of Lords does not in any way shape or form carry out the latter. Over the years the Lords has experienced short-term ‘quick fix’ reform. At the turn of the 20th century the 1911 Parliament Act curtailed the Lords ability to veto legislation – a quick fix reform by Lloyd George in order to ensure his Budget would pass. In 1949 the Second Parliament Act further reduced the Lords power to delay legislation – a quick fix reform by Clement Attlee in fear of having his government’s legislative programme blocked. In 1958, Harold Macmillan’s Life Peerages Act failed in its attempt to reduce the size of the Lords. The latest reform came in 1999, an Act stripping the rights of all but 92 hereditary peers to sit in the Lords. All of these ‘quick fix’ reforms have neglected to address the fundamental inadequacies of the House of Lords – unelected and unaccountable.
It’s time every Baron, Baroness, Countess, Duke, Earl, Lady, Marquess, Viscount, Archbishop and Bishop be replaced by a democratically elected Senator. It’s time we have a Senate – a body that can adequately serve and represent the people of a progressive 21st century democracy.
So, why should the House of Lords be reformed or replaced, as this article will articulate? It needs replacing because it is fundamentally undemocratic by being unelected. You can sugar coat it as much as you want by claiming peers bring a wealth of experience and knowledge, yet, what they don’t bring is a mandate by the people to reside in a body reserved for scrutinizing, reviewing and amending government legislation. Three in four peers are male with an average age of 69, 87 hereditary peers of noble descent, 25 bishops and 781 plus life peers by appointment of party. So, why should we even bother in replacing the House of Lords? On the 23rd June 52% of us voted to leave the EU, in part because we was fed up of being dictated to by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, well what about the unelected bureaucrats in Westminster?
When the Coalition Government briefly debated House of Lords reform, Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall spoke of abolishing the Lords, giving way to a unicameral system. Typical politician, forever craving more power. Do we really want our elected representatives to go unchecked in carrying out their duties? I think not. An upper chamber is therefore paramount. An upper chamber ensures additional scrutiny of government legislation, it ensures a vital second opinion and often proceeds with more caution than a government controlled lower chamber, eager on implementing its legislative programme. Some may suggest the House of Lords already performs such duties and see reform as change for the sake of change, to those I say it is change for the sake of democracy and all that we cherish and preach.
So, what would a British Senate look like? How would Senators be elected? How many of them would reside? What would they do? And what kind of relationship would exist between the Senate and the Commons?
One of the main reasons for replacing the House of Lords with a Senate, is to resolve the matter of the Lords being unelected and unaccountable. The British Senate would be wholly elected using the party list system. Previously used to elect our MEP’s, this serves as the primary reason for choosing such a system as it portrays a sense of familiarity for voters. Replacing the Lords would be entirely counterproductive if a proportional representation system was not used. Senators would be elected for five year terms with elections held at the same time as the Commons. This is to avoid the constant campaigning experienced in the US, where one third of the Senate is elected every 2 years. This compared to the closed door set up in the Lords, where peers are appointed by parties and by the ‘supposed’ independent House of Lords Appointments Commission.
The size of the Lords has fluctuated year on year. It is unlike any other chamber in the world in not having a defined number of members. By the time Labour came to power following the 1997 election, the House of Lords consisted of 1,330 members, second to that of China’s communist National People’s Congress. The British Senate would have 300 Senators. 25 for each of the 12 regions of the UK. Those being; the East Midlands, East of England, London, North East England, North West England, South East, South West, West Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
So, what would a British Senate do in the legislative process? Since members of the public are already able to contact their MP to take up local issues, involvement of Senators in this work would cause confusion and competition between MP’s and Senator’s, therefore the British Senate would undertake a distinctly different role. The Senate would become a ‘territorial chamber’, one where regional politics is debated at a national level. Senators would act as a bridge between their devolved region and the UK parliament. From Dundee to Dover the UK is a divided nation, a ‘territorial chamber’ would seek to heel those divides by having an equal number of Senators represent the 12 regions, meaning the city of London will have no greater voice than the region of Yorkshire and the Humber. Dispelling the notion that British politics is London centric.
Currently the House of Lords wields far too much power for an unelected, undemocratic and unrepresentative chamber. It reviews and amends Bills, it can delay the passage of Bills, it can force the Commons to reconsider Bills and the Lords can even introduce Bills. It has all the powers but not a single ounce of legitimacy. The British Senate would take inspiration from the powers of the Canadian Senate, in which Bills can be introduced in either the lower or upper chamber, and may amend or even reject legislation. On matters of finance such as the Budget, it would be introduced in the Commons and maybe amended but not increased in cost by the Senate. This would enable a territorial British Senate to guarantee the appropriate allocation of spending and resources to certain regions.
At the start of this article I stated the decision to leave the European Union is one which should cause us to reflect on our own institutions and the framework of our democracy. I will genuinely view it as hypocritical if as we start the renegotiate our exit from the EU, if those in power do not seriously reflect on our own institutions, specifically the House of Lords – unelected – undemocratic – unrepresentative – unaccountable, words also used to describe EU institutions. Let us cease this opportunity and right the wrongs of our democracy.