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Turning the House of Lords into an elected Senate would be a lasting and highly damaging piece of constitutional vandalism

By Jonathan Isaby

Lords_Chamber It seems increasingly likely that the efforts to change the voting system for the House of Commons will be defeated in May's referendum on the Alternative Vote.

And whilst that will hopefully crush for another generation the Lib Dems' ambitions to scrap First Past The Post, it will increase the sense of urgency inside Nick Clegg's party for political reforms elsewhere.

And attention is already turning to that other long-held Lib Dem ideal: abolishing the House of Lords and introducing a second chamber elected by proportional representation.

In his Sunday Telegraph column today, Peter Oborne addresses this very issue, noting that whilst David Cameron had previously dismissed it as a "third-term issue", Clegg is on a "mission of constitutional reform" and needs to be stopped in his tracks on this one:

"There is an urgent need to consider very carefully what Nick Clegg is trying to do, ascertain precisely what his motivations are, and soberly assess the consequences. For there is nothing quaint about his ambitions for constitutional reform. His proposals, if put into effect, will completely change the way that Britain is governed. Above all, they will destroy the standing and authority of the House of Commons, which has been the cockpit of British freedom and democracy since the 17th century."

"The new Lords will still be able to claim a democratic legitimacy that it has never before been able to assert. At a stroke, the sovereignty of the Commons will be compromised."

"Members of Clegg’s House of Lords will be able to claim that they are the pure, unrefracted voice of the British people – and therefore the more legitimate of the two Houses. It is also likely that members of the new Lords (or Senate, as it will be called) will be sworn in for a decade or more, giving them extra power and authority.

"It is easy to understand why Nick Clegg should advocate this. His Lib Dems, with around 20 per cent of the seats, will always hold the balance of power in the Upper House. The trouble is that such an arrangement will be a disaster for the nation as a whole. Voters will suddenly wake up and discover that we have two Parliaments rather than one."

A draft bill on Lords reform had been due to be issued in November, but it has been delayed and is now not likely to be published for another two or three months.

Procrastination on this issue is nothing new. As Oborne reminds us, Asquith's Liberal Government 100 years ago promised fundamental change, as did Harold Wilson and then Tony Blair - all stymied by events or an internal inability to agree on a way forward.

I hope that the issue can again be kicked into the long grass, since I agree with Peter Oborne's fears about an elected second chamber.

Further to his arguments, I would assert that since the second chamber ought to be a revising chamber, it is therefore far better suited to being an appointed house of experts rather than a house crammed full of partisan politicians who failed to get elected to the Commons.

Of course there will be party political appointees, but part of the beauty of the House of Lords as currently constituted is that many of its members are precisely the kind of people who would not stand for election but whose wise counsel, experience, expertise and knowledge add huge value to the legislative process.

To scrap the Lords and replace it with a Senate as envisaged by Nick Clegg would be a lasting and highly damaging piece of constitutional vandalism. As the Lib Dems and others ratchet up the pressure for change over the coming months and years, it is vital that the case for conserving the status quo is made with gusto.

> Last September, Lord Norton of Louth wrote here that neither a new electoral system for the Commons, nor an elected Lords, will fix politics


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