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Richard Harrington MP: No, direct election won't boost the legitimacy of the Lords. We don't need more professional politicians.

Screen shot 2012-07-09 at 06.31.13I am very much in favour of reforming the second chamber. It is impossible to justify the current system of appointment, which under the guise of rewards for 'services' effectively means appointments are at the discretion of the political elite.

It would be easy, and convenient to argue that the solution to this is electing the majority of members of the Upper House. It fits in with the consensus view - which I, of course, hold too - that the cross on the ballot paper is the proper way to choose our leaders.

However, having given the matter much thought I believe that the current proposals for reform simply perpetuate the monopoly that the political parties have over our democratic process, and miss a fantastic opportunity to attract the type of talented people with a lot to contribute towards making legislation better, who would never dream of standing for election.

I have been in Parliament for two years now, and have had the opportunity to talk to most MP's of all political complexions. They are nearly always hard-working and committed people who have clear views as to the way they want the country to be run. Indeed there is more consensus about fundamentals than observers of proceedings in Parliament may think. However most, although not all, have devoted most of their lives to the furtherance of policies. Almost by definition, there is a 'jack of all trades, master of none'  approach, which means many written and oral contributions in policy matters, are prepared from research done by others, rather than specific expertise, For the record, I include myself in this, and am not claiming any form of personal superiority!

Party partisanship is paramount; indeed it is the core of our system. It has many good points, not least, implementing a manifesto, which has many specific and some general commitments. Indeed, House of Lords Reform is in our manifesto, and I fervently support it. I do not however believe that two different chambers with two different duties and remits should be filled with the same type of people.

The test for me, as a firm believer in a second chamber which revises the clearly accountable House of Commons is, how to make use of the huge talent pool in the country of people who would not consider standing for election, but have a lot to contribute to the making of better laws. Robert Winston is a good example of this; just the person we need to be in the Lords to contribute to debates on issues of science but the type of person who is unlikely to have the time or inclination to stand for election.

The basis of reform, should therefore be, in my view, to find a way of removing political patronage from the system. The current proposals serve the opposite purpose, they perpetuate hackery by allowing the Parties to effectively appoint the candidates via proportional representation, just like they do for the European elections. This is not real democracy, or accountability, it is recruiting exactly the same type of people who are currently well represented in our democratic process.

Voters in my constituency Watford already vote for Parish Councillors, District Councillors, directly elected Mayor, County Councillors, MP, MEP and now Police Commissioners. All come from the established political parties. Would an 8th set of Representatives, for new Senate, make Britain more democratic? I believe not. Very few of my constituents have any idea of who their MEP's are. Why would Senators elected for 15 years on a political list system be any different, would people vote for them and if not we are then in a situation of a second elected chamber elected in by a minority of people.

In my view we need far more fundamental reform than the 'same as usual' system being proposed. The House of Lords is a legislative chamber like no other and should not be moulded to work like all others.

I would much rather see the country systematically divided up into 'constituencies', which are not geographical, but representative of all of our society, by occupation and interest group. Each should be able to appoint its own representative to the House of lords, for a fixed period, perhaps 5, or 7years. There should be an absolute ban on people who have stood for elected office.
The constituencies would be decided on by an independent commission, with the law stating clearly that they should collectively represent all significant interests in the country. Where possible the bodies themselves would amend their constitutions to make sure their representatives had the necessary experience to represent their interests in the House of Lords. Sectors would have representatives, such as the property industry, Institute of Charted Surveyors), architects, accountants, lawyers etc etc.

Some examples would be-

  • Business and professions: small business would have a representative, probably appointed by the Federation of Small Businesses, as would big business (CBI).
  • Academia, the Arts, Sports and Culture would have representatives.
  • Trade Unions, representatives of Old people, young people, people with disabilities. Gay people, unemployed people and other recognisable interest groups should be entitled to representatives.
  • There should be some political representation, for example from the Local Government Association for Councillors. It would seem sensible to have a limited number of ex House of Commons people. To avoid the patronage aspect, perhaps holding a Cabinet Post, or Shadow Cabinet position, should mean an automatic single term in the Upper House following retirement from the Commons.

The main idea is to create a House which is broadly representative, with abilities to make legislation better because they will have the experiences in their fields to contribute on a way which most generally elected representatives of political parties do not have. The public have plenty of opportunities in all the other elections to exercise direct democratic choice, but I believe de-politicising the second chamber is a way of significantly improving our legislation. It is a prize worth having.

It is a shame that we a not offered this alternative, just more of the same. On a matter this important, that will change the way democracy operates in the UK forever it seems short-sighted to push ahead with this current proposed reforms when alternative models have not been considered. That is why, for the first time in my political life, I shall not be supporting the Government.


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