Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Reforming the House of Lords

I was listening to Radio 4 the other day when I was annoyed to hear an idea being praised by some academic. It was on the selection for the House of Lords and the idea was that citizens should sit on juries to select peers. The reason this annoyed me is that I floated this very idea some time back. This is how it came about.

Remember New Labour’s “Peoples’ Peers”, the label applied to the Independent Appointment’s Commission chaired by Lord Stevenson? Members of the public were nominated, with the Commission receiving over 3000 applications to join the House of Lords. There was widespread outrage when Lord Stevenson announced the names of the successful applicants. Among those newly ennobled, six knighthoods and five other honours had already being awarded. What is more, Lord Stevenson suggested that normal people, such as hairdressers, would be uncomfortable being in the Lords.

This was November, 2001. At the time I happened to be listening to the Jimmy Young Show on BBC Radio 2 and decided to contribute to the debate. I was fortunate enough to get through to a producer (possibly with the name of Chris?) who was courteous enough to listen to my idea which was this:

The Independent Appointment’s Commission was effectively a selection jury made up from the Great and the Good. Is it any wonder therefore that they had selected new peers from their own social background? Therefore if the IAC was truly to represent “Peoples’ Peers”, the selection committee would have to be made up from normal people. How could this be achieved? By selecting the members of the IAC on the same basis as juries are selected for court cases. The individuals selected would be part of the panel for the duration of that selection round.

Now, I was on the telephone for about four minutes putting forward this suggestion. The gentleman on the other end seemed genuinely impressed and questioned me on aspects of the plan. After the conversation ends I listened to the rest of the programme in the hope that my idea would be mentioned. It was not. And there matters rested until I heard the same suggestion being praised the other day.

I am not accusing anybody of stealing my idea. It is almost certain that whoever came up with it recently had arrived at it independently. No matter what the provenance of the idea is, I reckon it is still a good one.

The problem with selection of the House of Lords is that it is tied too much to the justly criticised patronage system. IAC was a flawed attempt to balance the system. I am against the direct election of the Lords for the simple reason that it will undermine the independence of the House. Peers will be in the power of the political parties rather than independent as they are now. An elected Lords will also undermine the constitutional supremacy of the House of Commons. In recent years the Lords have been a centre of effective resistance to government attempts to pass through illiberal, not to say draconian measures such as the extension of the term of detention that the police can hold a suspect without charge. The Lords also acts as a centre of expertise and specialised knowledge that is simply not available to the Commons. This is all the more important with the increasing professionalisation of the political classes. In my opinion, a House of Lords made up of entirely elected members will fatally wound the institution and inevitably it will become a rubber stamp for the executive in power.

The power of the Lords is that its members, once they join the House, are life members. The government no longer has direct control over them. Certainly many still take the whip and sit loyally with their political party. But still the Lords is a rigorous obstacle that contentious bills have to pass through.

The key to reforming the Lords lies in reformation of the selection system. Whether made up members of the public or more specialised members (such as politicians, academics or religious leaders) or even a mixture of members, juries may offer a simple and elegant solution as to who becomes a Lord.

1 comment:

charles said...

Lets get Syuart Wheeler in the house of Lords as a "Peoples Peer"!
He might have given £5m to the torys 7 years ago but he is now the reincarnation of St. George single handedly knocking Brown for six over the Lisbon Treaty in the High Court.
He has earnt his place in history!