by George Foulkes
When, earlier this month, Nick Clegg announced the demise of his ill-judged and ill thought out plans to reform the House of Lords, he was in a terrible strop. So much so, that he rubbished any proposal to improve the present composition of the second chamber.
David Steel, Helene Hayman and others have proposed a number of measures which would make the current composition and method of appointment more sensible and greatly reduce the ridiculously large size. Hereditary peers could be phased out by ending the laughable by-election provision for so called ‘vacancies’ when hereditaries pass away. Weeding out poor and non- attendees and bringing in a retirement provision could provide the biggest reduction. New members meanwhile could be approved by an expanded and statutory appointments commission and some guidance criteria for appointments published.
Clegg would have none of this. He does not want to add any credibility to what he considers to be a totally discredited House.
In doing so, the deputy prime minister is adopting a typical Marxist/Leninist revolutionary posture: “do not improve the hated institution of government or you will delay the revolution”. But it should be evident to Mr Clegg that the only intelligent way to achieve his goal of Lords reform is through two stage evolution.
Stage one is the kind of tidying up of the present arrangements described above which remove the worst aspects of the status quo – huge size, hereditaries and lack of transparency in appointment.
Stage two however, could be started simultaneously to allay the fears of those who think stage one is a ploy to cast real reform back into the long grass. And this would be found upon the recommendation of the alternative report of the joint committee.
A constitutional convention would be set up to consider how an elected Lords would fit into our current system, taking account not only of its relationship with the Commons but also the devolved parliaments. My own suggestion to that commission would be a senate of about 450 members elected to represent the nations and regions of the UK with a different remit which leaves the directly elected Commons supreme.
There will inevitably be a whole kaleidoscope of proposals for the commission to consider. So to help further allay the fears of the doubters, the constitutional convention would be set up by cross-party agreement and given a deadline by which to report.
By setting this in motion, it would be clear to the then current Lords that they have a limited time to serve, with no lengthy phasing out period. Indeed, the clumsy kind of overlap being suggested by Clegg was just one of the manifest weaknesses of his proposals. Of course, there may need to be a short period where the Lords and senate runs alongside one another to enable a smooth handover. Either way, such evolution, if adopted, could mean we have a fully elected senate in place within a decade – a much earlier target date than that envisaged by Mr Clegg.
Existing peers would know they had at least a decade more service to give, with older ones retiring gracefully and younger ones seeking to offer their experience as a reason to be elected to the new senate. Anyone appointed in the interim, and they should be relatively few in number, would be taking on the job in the knowledge and acceptance that their time was limited.
Another positive advantage of this plan is that it provides a vehicle to look at the devolved parliaments and their relationship with Westminster, including the vexed issue of the “West Lothian question” – now better described as the English democratic deficit.
I will urge the Labour party to take up these proposals because they fit in with our oft stated, though not universal, position in favour of an elected second chamber. It would be better however if, as for any constitutional change, it was agreed on a cross-party basis.
Lord George Foulkes is a backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords
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