The Open Univesity : Open Politics

Reform 1999
People's Peers
White Paper
Where now?
Links and reading
So what do we want?

Elected or appointed?

The debate about the Lords' future role takes us to the heart of democracy.

Appointees can bring with them a wealth of experience

The government's White Paper on reforming the House of Lords has been greeted with widespread criticism. "A dog's breakfast" according to several political commentators; redolent of the culture of cronyism, according to the leader of the Conservatives in the Lords.

But: what do we want from our democracy? And does that coincide with what the politicians want?

According to the campaigning group Charter 88, poll after opinion poll has shown an overwhelming majority of us want an elected second chamber.

Tony Blair
The Prime Minister fears gridlock

But that's not what we're going to get.

The government's White Paper suggests we'll get the chance to elect 120 members of the Lords - twenty per cent of its total membership.

The Prime Minister has specifically ruled out creating what he feels would a be replica of the Commons. But - as we've seen - there are ways of ensuring that the upper chamber is different from the lower house. One is to impose a minimum age limit, as they do in France and Italy. Another is to weight regional representation, as they do in the US and Germany.

Quote Mark In poll after poll it has been shown that the majority of people want a fully elected second chamber. This is not the end of the debate. There is plenty of time for the public to exert pressure and to get the sort of second chamber they want." Quote Mark

Pam Giddy, Charter 88

If you don't want an upper house filled with party political hacks, you can, of course, try to co-opt some ordinary people into it. But, as we saw with the People's Peers, it's not easy to agree on what constitutes an ordinary person of extraordinary achievement. So far, no head teachers or lollipop ladies have found their way onto the Lords' cross-benches.

So, what is the government's real concern? Legislative gridlock, according to Tony Blair.
 GRIDLOCK: to find out more about gridlock in the American constitution click here

At the moment, the Lords has only limited powers - and the government would like it to stay that way. It has no power over finance bills - the lifeblood of any government. It can only delay other forms of legislation and under the Salisbury Convention, it does not challenge the principal behind legislation which is carrying through a manifesto commitment.
 ABOLITION: to find out about the Salisbury Convention click here

An elected second chamber might well be more self confident.

Dennis Skinner
Dennis Skinner: nostalgic about abolition
In an age of sweeping commons majorities (three landslides in two decades) the role of Opposition arguably falls to the Lords - to delay or reject ill-thought-out legislation which has been pushed through the Commons on a three-line whip.

To look at the problem from another angle - as New Zealand has done - you might manage without an upper house altogether if you had other limits on the power of the executive. In New Zealand the tiny majorities produced by Proportional Representation act as an additional check on the power of the government of the day.

Audio Clip AUDIO
BBC R4's Any Questions panel debate the White Paper:
Diane Abbott, Melanie Philipps, Tim Collins, Abdel Bari-Atwan
The Labour Party Conference once voted by 6m votes to 600,000 to scrap the House of Lords, according to the MP Dennis Skinner.

Now in one of those reversals of fortune which sometimes happens in politics, a Labour government is being criticised for not going far enough.

The Conservatives are calling for a new 300-member "senate" to replace the Lords - and they want eighty per cent of the members to be directly elected. The Liberal Democrats have long argued for a completely elected second chamber.

Quote Mark Despite its often immense contribution to our national life, I am convinced that we now need a new upper chamber, a smaller and overwhelmingly an elected one Quote Mark

Conservative Leader, Iain Duncan Smith, January 2002
Perhaps the real lesson in all this is that no government willingly gives up more of its power than it needs to, whatever it may have said in opposition. The power of patronage - the power to create peers or to nominate members to the second chamber - is vital to the smooth-running of the political machine. The tempting offer of a peerage can ease the retirement of a long-serving MP - and, if he happens to represent a safe seat, may well give his party the chance to parachute in one of its rising stars.

In an age when it's possible to earn far more in the City than you could ever earn in politics, the gift of a peerage is still a powerful reward for a lifetime's service.

Quote Mark It is important that the House of Lords is not simply drawn from full time politicans but a broader range of influences. I believe the House of Lords should be - as it is now - a deliberating and revising chamber and should not be a replica of the House of Commons. Quote Mark

Tony Blair, House of Commons, Nov 7 2001
Quote Mark The second chamber should be directly elected, should have sufficient powers to challenge the government and should reflect the broader UK constitution…(It) should retain the power to delay legislation by a year…Ultimately government should be able to get its legislation through parliament. However the second chamber should be able to force the government to think again. Quote Mark

Charter 88

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