Simon Fawthrop: A proposal for an elected Senate which would allow existing peers to retain speaking (but not voting) rights
House of Lords reform is something that all the political parties have skirted around ahead of the forthcoming general election, so far with relatively little agreement on what form it should take.
As a traditionalist I’ve asked the question as to whether the next government, if it is a Conservative one lead by David Cameron, would restore the House of Lords to its former glory – pre-Blair. Sadly I’ve reached the conclusion that this is unlikely to happen. Therefore the Conservative Party needs to find a way out of the dilemma it faces over House of Lords reform, and push forward a system which reforms the second chamber but retains the merits of the current House of Lords.
The advantage of the current House of Lords, even as reformed, is that it allows experts to be utilised when discussing and shaping legislation. In addition it has an element of stability (longevity) given that House of Lords Members are there for life. The disadvantages of the House of Lords include a heavy reliance on a system of patronage as a means of selecting our legislators.
Historically the hereditary peers in the House of Lords could remain independent of the government of the day. This was down to one simple key issue, namely that the peers were unelected (and therefore unselected) which meant that no amount of threatening or bullying by party whips and party machinery could force a change of mind. In turn, this lack of an electoral mandate constrained the way in which peers could operate.
With the exception of some experts, the same is not true of the politically appointed Life Peers who make up the bulk of today’s House of Lords. This has often resulted in accusations of cronyism and cash for honours, a situation where mud has stuck, tarnishing the reputation of the House of Lords. There does, however, now seem to be a consensus around moving towards some form of elected second chamber. But the nature and composition and method of election for the second chamber are all areas under scrutiny and debate.
For the sake of argument, let’s go with what some of the more radical reformers have called for and name the second chamber a Senate and outline some suggestions on how a Senate can be elected and work with the current House of Commons, as well as dealing with what happens to the current and any new peers.
There has been much talk about efficiency and not having an oversized chamber which would be counter-productive. My particular proposal would see the Senate made up of 149 seats. The seats would be split with 99 of the seats elected on a first past the post electoral system. They would be constituency-based with each area representing approximately 450,000 electors. The constituencies would be drawn up by the Boundary Commission in line with its usual consultation process, but to coincide where possible with Local Government boundaries, so that the Senate and Local Government elections can in the majority of cases take place on the same day to save costs and invigorate both sets of elections, particularly where there are annual council or County Council elections.
To give the Senators some degree of independence and give the element of stability - that is one of the positives of the current House of Lords - a Senator should be elected for a nine-year term, with a third of Senators elected every three years.
The only caveat to this is that after the first election of all 99 elected senators, there would be 33 who would have a term of three years and 33 who would have a term of six years, so as to ensure that future elections can take place at the three year interval for a third of the seats. The only question not answered here is that of limiting the number of elected terms for a Senator (e.g. three or four terms maximum). I’m not proposing any restriction, but others may take a different view.
In addition to the 99 directly-elected Senators, this model proposes 50 Senate Seats (called Term Senators). These seats are allocated immediately following every general election by political party leaders, using whatever method they wish. The downside is that these seats could be 100% dependent upon patronage, although there is a limitation compared with the current House of Lords where there is no limit on the amount of patronage.
As Term Senators their appointment would be limited for one term of the House of Commons at a time. These would be allocated in proportion to the elected Seats in the House of Commons. It would also be fixed, so that by-elections in the House of Commons would not affect the Term Senate composition. Only a General Election would change the composition of Term Senators.
If the seats were to be based on the current composition of the House of Commons that would be roughly 1 Term Senator for every 13 MPs elected for a political party. This is to ensure that extreme or minority parties are not over represented, but also to prevent unnecessary blocking of legislation and provide some degree of protection to an incoming government for their legislative programme. Taking the figures from the last General election in 2005, Labour would have 27 Term Senate seats, Conservatives 15 seats, Liberal Democrats 5 seats and the DUP and Scottish Nationalists 1 Seat each.
There should be three basic provisions to govern the working of the Senate. These are designed to ensure the Senate works well by concentrating on the legislative programme.
- It can not block a finance bill except with a two thirds majority, i.e. 100 votes out of the 149.
- It can with a two thirds majority delay legislation for three years.
- With a simple majority it can delay legislation for one Session of Parliament.
All 149 Senators would have full voting rights in the new Senate. All would be eligible to be part of the Government (Executive) if required. By-election rules would apply to the elected Senators. However party leaders would have the ability to recall Term Senators annually or replace them if a vacancy came about through resignation or death.
So what happens to the current members of the House of Lords? Clearly a lot of expertise is available to the current House of Lords through its current membership. One of the positive aspects of Life Peers, Law Lords, Bishops etc is the expertise they bring to the legislative table. I propose that all peers, (including hereditary and Life Peers), Law Lords and Bishops be allowed speaking rights without notice in the Senate but no voting rights. This still allows the element of recognition that I believe most people appreciate: and that is rewarding those who achieve great things in their life, or become an expert in their field. I would expect new peers to continue to be created.
The role of a Senator would not be the same as that of an MP. A member of the Senate would not be funded for constituency work as their primary role would be that of scrutinising and revising the legislation before Parliament.
Like all suggestions this one is not perfect and has its flaws too. For example, the party machinery will have an undue influence in the choice of candidate selection, but ultimately those candidates must go before a public vote. The party leaders will decide the Term Senators, however there is always the possibility that party members will want to have a say in who becomes a Term Senator. I can foresee wise party leaders delegating this responsibility internally to make for greater political involvement of party members.
The final question must be over the role of the Queen and whether having a more democratic second chamber could be perceived to undermine the monarchy. However, by preserving the right of peers to speak without notice, we enshrine the right of the monarch to attend the Senate, which would allow the Queen’s Speech to not only continue but to give additional protection for the future.
This is just one model amongst many that are proposed. This particular suggestion clearly has its pluses and minuses but it is right that these are thrashed out ahead of an election, as House of Lords reform is clearly back on the Westminster agenda and the Conservatives need to be prepared to seize the initiative on this subject. Promising an elected second chamber in the next Manifesto can only be seen as positive.