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Thursday, 20 January, 2000, 15:14 GMT
What a missed opportunity




By Meghnad Desai, Labour life peer and professor of economics at the London School of Economics.

The Royal Commission chaired by Lord Wakeham had a chance to propose a radical reconstitution of the second chamber. We need a fully elected second chamber. That alone can be legitimate and check the system of elective dictatorship that we have at the moment.

Lords Reform
We needed to remove all peers, hereditary as well life peers, law lords and bishops, and have instead a 300-member directly or indirectly elected chamber.

It could have had a different electoral cycle and longer tenure than the MPs in the Commons. At the start of the new century here was an opportunity to wipe the slate clean.



This chance has been missed. We shall continue with a slightly reformed muddle, but muddle it will be.
This chance has been missed. We shall continue with a slightly reformed muddle, but muddle it will be.

Some elected members elected regionally. This does legitimise the English regions and gives them for the first time a status in Westminster. This is thus a confirmation of the federal trends started in the devolution cycle.

A slowly evolving chamber

So the House of Lords will slowly evolve (after all the present peers are dead or gone) into a federal chamber with an appointed element.

But that will take another 50 years at least. In the meantime, it is not at all clear how the size will evolve.

Life peers could retire and this will perhaps cull their numbers, though not as drastically as those for the hereditary peers.

New appointed members will mingle with the elected ones as non-titled members. But the size has been left to the Appointments Committee as and when it is created.

By offering three choices as to the number of elected members, the commission has given the choice to the government as to where it sees the balance to lie.

Not enought 'fresh faces'

Had it said that the chamber should be made up of a fixed number of members with limited terms and no second term, room could have been created for fresh faces more frequently.



the Royal Commission has gone for a lot of small changes rather than anything big and bold.
But the Royal Commission has gone for a lot of small changes rather than anything big and bold.

Titles will not be given to the new members. This will create two tiers - a very invidious innovation in what is, at present, paradoxically the most egalitarian chamber.

They will have limited terms, albeit of up to 30 years.

Better pay

There will better payment but again not as good as the MPs, so that distinction will continue.

There is also only a tepid recommendation that facilities for carrying out the duties of a member of the upper chamber should be enhanced. Peers and the new members will continue to be poorly resourced, which is a pity.

'A half-way house'

A chance to entirely remove the bishops has been missed. Instead, a half-way house has been created to have other Christian sects and other faiths. But the Roman Catholic clergy will not sit or take an oath to the Monarch. Hindus have no organised clergy and once you start counting there are scores of sects and faiths.

The argument made by the Roman Catholic church is, in my view, a sound one. Religions should be represented by lay members, not by professionals. This will become a bone of contention in the future and divide the various religions rather than unite them.

Foot dragging imminent

But all of this may be totally irrelevant. There is no sign that the government has any desire to implement the report of the Royal Commission. There will a lot of foot-dragging and nothing will happen this side of the election. Nothing that is of any substance, anyway.

Never mind by the time of the next election; I doubt that the introduction elected members in the second chamber will occur before the election after next - if ever.

The first stage of Lords reform culled the hereditaries down to 92 from about 750. This was mildly revolutionary.

But no government has the stomach for two bouts of House of Lords reform in a short span of time. So I expect that the minor changes - on daily allowances, for example - will happen by order, but no bill will be introduced for a second stage of reform for a while.

I predict a snails' race between two decisions after the next election: joining the euro and reforming the House of Lords, with Tony Blair hoping that neither will reach the finishing line this side of 2005.

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See also:
20 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Lords reform blueprint unveiled
20 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Lords reform proposals at a glance
20 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Lords report fails to satisfy
19 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Straw prepares for jury trial defeat

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