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Lords reform Tuesday, 19 January, 1999, 16:23 GMT
A second tier of power
Second chambers come in various forms and sizes and carry with them a range in powers and influence over their respective governments.

Lords Reform
The Constitution Unit at the University College of London is currently researching seven examples of different second chambers around the world. It is examining a mix of federal and unitary states with their mixture of directly-elected, indirectly-elected and appointed upper houses.

The Constitution Unit, an independent think tank which is carrying out research around the government's constitutional reform programme, is made up of six researchers.

Senior research fellow Meg Russell told BBC News Online: "The common thing with these upper houses is there's less media attention on them and they have slightly more mature members who are slightly less aligned to parties."

The unit is publishing its research into second chambers at the end of next year.


Canada is the only major country which has an entirely appointed second chamber. The Senate has 104 members and new members are selected as others retire. The members are officially appointed by the governor general, although the prime minister actually selects the candidates and only ever appoints from their own party. As a result of this, the Senate is regarded as a place to put old party faithful and ageing MPs. Members are appointed on a regional basis but do not strictly represent those regions.

Although it has some powers, the Senate rarely challenges legislation. That is because, firstly, governments which have been in power for a long time tend to have a majority, and secondly, there would be an outcry if the appointed Senate was to act against the elected House of Commons. However a general election was forced in the 1980s when the Conservatives inherited a Liberal Senate.


The Italian experience is unusual in that the upper house is essentially identical to the lower house. The Senate and the Chamber of Deputies are elected under a proportional representation system on the same day and the houses have equal powers. The system came about because after the war and the dictatorship of Mussolini, there was a desire to spread the power around with a central government and strong regional government. However the regional level did not evolve leaving the Italians with two similar tiers. Difficulties arise with laws shuttling back and forwards between the two houses for some considerable time.

There are some differences between the two chambers. The heads of the parties sit in the lower house where members must be 25 years of age or older. The age restriction on the upper house is 40. The age qualification to vote in each of the houses is also different.

At present there are 326 Senators which includes a small number of appointed members. Of those, 315 are directly elected to serve five years, nine are appointed by the president of the Republic and two are former presidents.


The Irish system is unique in that a large proportion of members are elected nominally on the basis of professional groups. The Senate consists of 60 seats, 49 of which are indirectly elected by the universities and from candidates put forward by five vocational panels. The only true independents are those from the universities who are elected by graduates. The electorate for the professional candidates are the existing members of sitting councils, so they have a party political bias from the outset. Eleven further members are nominated by the prime minister. It is a very weak upper house within a weak Parliament effecting little impact on the legislative process. If a challenge looks possible, the prime minister can always use his members to make sure the government has a majority. However Meg Russell says: "They do scrutinise legislation and provide members for discussion on committees as well."


Germany's second chamber is the Federal Council or Bundesrat. It represents the government of the regions. It has 69 members who do not serve a set term of office as the house is never dissolved. The members change whenever there is a regional election and the members of local councils change. Its main power is over legislation affecting the regions providing a forum for regional representatives to discuss legislation with the potential power to block it.

It has power over around half the legislation that goes through - over the rest of the legislation it can only make recommendations.


Australia's Federal Parliament has a 76 member Senate - 12 from each of the country's six states and two from each of the two territories. Meg Russell says: "They're not really purely representative of the states because they do run on party tickets."

They are elected directly according to the single-transferable-vote form of proportional representation with one half of the members elected every three years to serve six-year terms.

The Senate is quite powerful, forcing general elections quite often because the government, which is elected under direct preferential majority vote, rarely has a majority in the proportionally elected upper house. The advantage is that small parties can get a look at legislation.


The Spanish constitution only dates back to 1977 and the fall of Franco. The new democracy runs under a system of regional government but it is much more uneven than the British system for example. The country currently faces issues surrounding a desire of the Basque and Catalonia regions wanting to become independent. The 208 members of the upper house are directly elected for four-year terms. They are elected from 52 multi-member constituencies corresponding to the country's provinces as well as Ceuta and Melilla. These directly-elected Senators win their seats through a simple majority vote. A further 49 members are indirectly elected from regional assemblies. The Senate tends to be weak - as is the parliament in general.


The French Senate is indirectly elected by popularly chosen departmental electoral colleges. It consists of 321 seats from 108 territorial constituencies - 296 for metropolitan France, 13 for overseas departments and 12 for French nationals abroad. Members serve nine-year terms after being voted in under a mixed system of voting. One-third of the members are elected every three years. While the lower house is more powerful, it is not all powerful. After legislation has been through both chambers twice, attempts to resolve any remaining points of difference are made by the formation of a joint committee which can try to word legislation that everyone can agree on - if not the lower house gets the final say.

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