So, the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill has reported to parliament… but the report won’t be published for another two weeks. There have been some leaks though, and so I’ll recap some of the other proposals that exist before looking at what this one may be.
As an aside, I did my own series of posts on this issue here which I shamelessly recommend.
The Status Quo
Not so much a choice as a possibility – some party executives, the Labour party particularly, don’t want to see any reform unless it is their 100% elected reforms. If the government’s House of Lords Bill either is voted down or can’t be agreed between the two Houses and the Parliament Acts aren’t used, this is likely to be what we end up with. A House without a limit to membership currently around 800 lords, 26 of whom are the bishops of certain dioceses and the longest serving bishops, 92 of whom are elected from and by the hereditary peers in their party groups, around 10 a year are appointed by the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission and the rest are appointed by party leaders. All apart from the bishops, who serve while they are in office, serve for life.
There are many experts in the House, but also many politicians and party loyalists rewarded by party leaders. Peers are independent in every way except for their selection if they’re party peers – they can’t even resign.
The Steel House
The House of Lords Bill sponsored by Lord (David) Steel of Aikwood for the last four years (and which has wide support in the House of Lords) proposed a gradual transition where all new peers to the House are appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission and parties merely propose peers who have to be vetted to ensure conspicuous merit and any other criteria it deems appropriate (subject to parliamentary approval). The Bishops remain, but the 92 hereditary peers will not be replaced when they die. Members will be able to resign, and the Appointments Commission should appoint peers to maintain the hung chamber and at least 20% crossbench members.
This is more legitimate than appointment by party leaders in my view, and the loss, albeit delayed, of the hereditary peers is going to at least marginally increase legitimacy. This increases the independence (taking away the automatic right of prime ministers to propose party peers) and perhaps expertise (prospective party peers must show conspicuous merit) of the House too.
The Clegg-Coalition House
The government’s draft House of Lords bill, being steered through parliament by the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, may well change after the joint committee report is considered, but until then I’ll look at it as published. Nick Clegg’s draft bill proposes a House of 312 members, 12 of whom are bishops, 60 of whom are appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission for three parliaments lasting at least two years (typically fifteen years), and 240 of whom are elected by the Single Transferable Vote in thirds for three parliaments lasting at least two years (typically fifteen years). Members cannot be re-elected/appointed.
This is a hybrid House of 80% elected to 20% appointed members. This would vastly increase the legitimacy of the House, probably at the expense of the expertise of general members (as opposed to the 20% who would still be the most expert). The independence of members is slightly increased thanks to the open election system.
The Clegg-Liberal Democrat House
Despite Nick Clegg’s proposals, Liberal Democrat policy is to have a 100% elected House, by Single Transferable Vote. Beyond that, they haven’t specified their preferences for term length, whether they can be reelected or how much of the House will be up for reelection at any one point. Because of this, I’ll assume they are happy with the rest of the proposals: a House of three hundred, terms of three parliaments, non renewable, elected in thirds.
This is perhaps slightly more legitimate than the Clegg-Coalition House, however little difference there might be in practice, but is less expert and less independent (since more members will take a party whip).
The Straw House
Labour’s Jack Straw, then Lord Chancellor, authored proposals for Lords reform before the last election for a 100% elected House very similar to the Liberal Democrat proposals but with an Open Party List rather than Single Transferable Vote. Labour has now changed its mind and doesn’t support single, non-renewable terms but beyond that they haven’t really articulated any other changes. The prospects for independence and expertise are thus lowest in Labour’s model of an upper house, though legitimacy is equal to the Liberal Democrats’ version. An important distinction between Labour and the others is that they want a referendum before any reform takes place.
The Independent, Expert and Elected House
Say we went full-on for all three options – a one-hundred percent elected House, with candidates pre-vetted by a suitably renamed House of Lords Appointments Commission for non-renewable fifteen year terms? It’s certainly possible. There are arguments to be had about how democratic such a House would be (but then again, there are arguments about how democratic any of these proposals are, bar the Labour one perhaps which has big drawbacks in and of itself). There are even some who say that to maintain the democratic accountability of government, you must have an un- or indirectly elected House.
The Richards House
Lord Richards’ joint committee is, if leaks are true, proposing a House of 450, 20% appointed (presumably by the Appointments Commission). The 80% that would be elected would be by open preferential voting, the system used in Australia which allows voters potentially to exercise great control over the ordering of candidates but allows a tick-box option to let the party decide the order of the candidates. In effect in Australia it has created a closed list system. There has been much consternation about this strengthening the hand of parties over their members in the Lords, but in reality since they only will serve one term it’ll be pretty much identical to the way candidates are chosen now*, but with a three-parliaments term and 120 elected at each election. The bombshell in the report is that they are demanding a referendum on the issue before reform happens.
This means that in terms of independence, it will be roughly the same as the current House. No party will have a majority and members will have a degree of independence. Expertise-wise, it can be reasonably expected it will be the same as the status quo, with many of the disadvantages of party appointments. It will, however, have a large amount of more democratically legitimate members.