UK govt needs to bring reform to House of Lords

Andy jalil –
andyjalil@aol.com –

It is not merely because the government was defeated for a sixth time by peers recently over its bill for withdrawal from the European Union but, in fact, the question has come up several times in the past and is in the news again as to what is the point of the House of Lords? This is not surprising.
You can’t fill a chamber in Parliament with unaccountable peers for life and then expect cast iron discipline and unquestionable obedience to the prime minister of the time.
A certain amount of insubordination is built into the British system of governance.
It has been eye-opening in the last year to watch the established camps switch sides when it comes to the Lord’s non-compliance on issues relating to Britain’s exit from the EU.
As, from time to time in the past, staunch traditionalists and conservatives are questioning the wisdom of Parliament’s unelected upper chamber while progressives who have been raging against the House of Lords for decades have made an abrupt about-turn and are championing this check on executive power. Whatever side one is on, it wouldn’t take an expert in Britain’s constitutional history to see that the upper chamber is muddled.
If one was going to design a second legislative chamber from scratch, it is unlikely one would come up with a similar system, made up of a few bishops, roughly a hundred hereditary peers, and over 660 life peers appointed by various governments.
If you think about it, the system appears to make little sense.
For a start, why are the clergy represented in lawmaking when only 16 per cent of the population are Church of England Christian, and the majority of Britons these days say they are not religious or even follow a religion.
And what’s the justification for giving someone a right to vote on UK legislation merely because of who their father was.
While many life peers are accomplished authorities in their fields who can bring valuable and varied expertise, there has been a tendency to introduce failed politicians and party advisors, who then continue in their political careers in the upper chamber rather than in the Commons.
Also, the question is why are there so many of them? With 785 peers, the House of Lords is almost the most crowded legislative body in the world — bigger than the European parliament, and second only to China’s National People’s Congress.
The problem is that — while there is almost universal acceptance that the Lords in its present form does not make sense — finding a workable alternative is not easy. Doing away with the upper chamber completely will be risky.
While some countries have a single legislative chamber, there is obvious value in having a system that takes a longer-term view of legislation, that is less influenced by the fickle changes of people’s minds and party politics.
Any attempt to make Lords more democratic by electing rather than appointing peers will impact its ability to resist the changes in the flow of electoral cycle.There is also a creative movement to replace the House of Lords with a jury duty style system of citizen service.
But even leaving aside the logistical issues, there will still be the same backlash any time this chamber of selected citizens blocked the wishes of elected MPs.
The most feasible option may be to simply cut the numbers — removing the clergy, hereditary peers and partisan hacks — and tightening up exactly what powers they have in comparison to MPs.
It is suggested that it may also be a good idea to have limited terms, giving peers long enough to become familiar with the process and see legislation through, then vacating their seats for a fresh group.
Another suggestion is the removal of the status angle, separating the honour of a title from the right to make UK laws, and calling members legislators rather than lords and baronesses, although this move may be regarded a little extreme by traditionalists.
There have been several petitions to redesign the system in the past, none of which have made significant progress.
But the Brexit process has broken down party lines and united those formerly in opposition to a common cause.
So, many argue, may be this might also be the right time for House of Lords reform.
(The author is our foreign correspondent based in the UK. He can be reached at andyjalil@aol.com)