A democratically elected Lords would allow proper checks on the Commons
My House of Lords Reform Bill would see existing life peers loose their voting rights and create 292 elected peers, with decision making powers, democratically elected under a PR voting system, writes Baroness Bennett.
In the Paper Office in the House of Lords, there’s a big bank of pigeonholes, with small bundles of green paper peeping from them.
I hadn’t paid much attention to this section, my focus in my first weeks in the House being on the daily order papers, and the government bills laid out on the main counter. So I’m indebted to the hugely knowledgeable staff for drawing my attention to one particular pigeonhole, the one containing my first private members’ bill, the Reform of the House of Lords Bill.
It formally entered the record last Wednesday, on its First Reading, a rather grand title for a short ceremony involving the reading of the title of the bill, from a sheet of paper handed over by House staff, filled with injunctions that this is definitely all you can say.
It was a humble, but timely event, coming in the week that Labour leadership contender Rebecca Long Bailey put the replacement of the House of Lords front and centre, after the government declared its intention to establish a Constitution, Democracy and and Rights Commission, even though as yet there’s few details. The issue has been further boosted by Gordon Brown and James Cleverly.
I can’t claim originality with the Bill - it reflects very similar bills presented twice before by my fellow Green peer Jenny Jones, but it does feel its time has come.
For politics is broken. That’s something on which a deeply divided country can largely agree.
The people did not “vote to get Brexit done”, as we hear proclaimed in the House multiple times a day. Rather 44% of people voted Tory, and even if you add in the Brexit Party vote of 2%, the majority voted for parties offering different, democratic ways forward.
And that flawed votes has put in place a distrusted, dysfunctional, disorganised government, hostage to undeliverable promises and contradictory positions. With the opposition in the Commons in disarray, it is left to the House of Lords to form the resistance, to be the sensible, balanced voice, as I argued specifically on the climate emergency and representation for young people.
But we’re already hearing how as “the unelected House” we can do little or nothing, before we even get to this week’s likely Report stage votes on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. So let’s elect a House that can be a proper check on any majority in the Commons, a House of Lords that has the legitimacy of election.
There are two obvious elements of the Bill I presented last week that will be of little surprise to anyone even marginally familiar with modern electoral systems.
First, it creates 292 elected peers, who are the ones who will make decisions in the House. Those peers are democratically elected through a proportional representation system based on the European electoral regions. It deliberately doesn’t name an exact voting system - time to have the detailed debate of D’Hondt versus Webster or the like after we’ve agreed the principle of proportionality.
It might be argued that those regions are at least in some cases too small to deliver proper proportionality, but let’s have that debate with the bill - positive, constructive amendments welcome.
But the bill also seeks to acknowledge the practicalities, the fact that we Greens are asking the Lords to vote to reform themselves, and also the positive aspects of the Lords as it now exists - the depth of knowledge and experience of many members, and their contribution to national debates and the detail of legislation.
So the Bill maintains for existing life peer (and the bishops) all of the rights they have now except voting - to contribute to debates, to scrutinise legislation, to present alternatives (and yes the right to the nice tea rooms and bars).
Elected peers have eight-year terms, with half elected every four years. For the first four years, the most active 146 life peers keep their votes. And importantly, life peers can stand for election without giving up their current positions. The aim of this provision is to encourage lists of crossbench peers to stand for election.
There is much good in the House that might be so maintained, as well as the opportunity to maintain a lot of the current independent-minded flavour of the House.
Now there are many now who fear that reform of the House of Lords is a sideshow, that there’s a risk that it might distract from the pressing need to democratise the primary house, where the government is formed, be a sop thrown to campaigners to avoid focus on the Commons. But I don’t think this would work out that way.
A key principle for bi-cameral legislatures is that one house be primary, be seen to be where final decisions are made. And that means it has to be the one with the legitimacy to maintain that status.
Make this Bill law, and the House of Lords would be clearly, demonstrably, more democratic than the Commons (I’ve argued it is already more representative of the country), were the lower house to continue to be elected through the antiquated first-past-the-post system. Reform the Lords, and you’d have to reform the Commons very soon afterwards - or preferably at the same time.
There’s a decent chance, given where I landed in the private members ballot, that this BIll will get a Second Reading.
I ask everyone interested in making the UK a democracy to look at it, to think about it, to join the debate.
Many people I meet now ask me how do we get the constitutional change so obviously urgently needed. Here’s one route to progress.
Baroness Bennett is a Green Member of the House of Lords.