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We should look to Germany for inspiration for constitutional reform

Lord Taverne on inspiration for constitutional reform (Alamy)

3 min read

At the end of the Second World War Germany, defeated and with a horrendous past to live down, decided to devise a new constitution. With the help of advice from Britain, it designed a constitution which has proved a great success and has helped to make Germany one of the best run countries since the War.

Victorious Britain felt no need for reform. As a result we have had to live with a constitution which has produced over-centralisation and a system of government which is hopelessly outdated and undemocratic.

Perhaps the worst failure of the government was House of Lords reform.

The House of Lords has some important roles. For example, apart from a theoretical power to delay legislation for a year, seldom exercised, we frequently discuss issues that are barely debated, if at all, by the Commons. A surprising number of Lords amendments are accepted by the Commons. But this is nevertheless no justification for the Lords’ democratic defects.

Our main blemish is that we are all appointed, except the bishops (and why are they still there? We are the only legislature apart from Iran which has clerical representatives.) We are not only appointed but appointed for life. The system is so absurd that facetiously I once proposed four reasons why peers should retire: when a good friend tells you that each speech you make is better than the next; when in mid-speech you stop to think and forget to start again; when your GP advises you not to buy season tickets but only day returns; and finally when you get breathless playing chess.

Every attempt at reforming the Lords has failed. Some proposals divided peers into some appointed and some elected, clearly an absurdity. The last attempt by the Speaker was that one new peer should be appointed only when two others had retired. This would have taken ages to reduce numbers but was in any event destroyed by Boris Johnson’s announcement that he would appoint a full list of retiring PM’s nominations.

Reform is urgent. The House now numbers about 800 and in important debates well over a 100 may put down their names to speak. However important the subject, all except front bench spokespeople may then be limited to some five minutes. Three hundred would be a reasonable number for us to operate effectively.

Our former prime minister, Gordon Brown, now heads a constitutional reform group that is clearly serious. It proposes changes resembling the German constitution. Germany elects representatives to their 16 länder (or states) which have governments and a prime minister with considerable devolved powers. The länder’s representatives in turn elect the members of their upper house, the Bundesrat.

Brown has proposed that he would abolish the Lords and that our countries and regions should be formed into a new senate. This would be democratically elected. (We do not yet know how.) He has also indicated that within the senate there would be close co-operation between large regional councils to create a spirit of national unity. Individuals would be given new rights and means to enforce them. The senate would have important devolved powers and would also have more effective control over excesses by government. But the Commons would continue to be the main chamber for amending and scrutinising legislation and would retain exclusive power over the public finances and the formation of governments.

One other suggestion, not, I suspect, universally popular: if the Lords have gone, why not titles too, with all their class associations?

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