Reform of the House of Lords

The House of Lords in session (source UK Parliament)

The following submission was made to the Lord Chancellor’s Department in response to the government’s White Paper on reform of the House of Lords.

1. Federalism divides political power between levels of government to achieve the best combination of democracy and effectiveness. It is not the bureaucratic centralisation of popular myth.

2. Federal Union was founded in 1938 to campaign for federalism for the UK, Europe and the world. It has argued since then that democracy and the rule of law should apply to states as well as within them.

Summary

3. This paper argues that some members of the upper house should be elected by members of the devolved bodies and regional assemblies in the UK, to provide a democratic element and to provide a brake on the process of centralisation.

The proposals in the White Paper

4. The proposals in the White Paper serve to strengthen the power of patronage and the dependence of national political life on the Westminster system. At a time when patronage is increasingly criticised and the Westminster system decreasingly respected, we think this is a mistake.

5. Specifically, the White Paper would strengthen the powers of those institutions already located in Westminster. Four fifths of the members of the new upper house would be appointed, and only one fifth elected.

6. Worryingly, three fifths of the members of the new upper house would be appointed by political parties. The White Paper is silent on how each party might carry this out. This points the way to a much strengthened power of patronage by the national structures of the political parties. This is hardly what the country needs. Political institutions can play a considerable role in shaping the political culture: the White Paper suggests that British political culture should become even more centralised than it is already.

Federal Union’s proposal

7. Federal Union argues that the government should accept the principle of the indirect election of some members of the upper house by the devolved bodies and regional assemblies.

8. The nature of governance in the United Kingdom has been transformed dramatically by the creation of devolved parliaments and assemblies. In a number of ways, the UK now has some of the features of a federal system rather than a unitary state. This should be reflected in the legislative institutions at the UK level itself.

9. There is a distinctive interest that devolved bodies have in UK legislation, separate and in addition to the interest of the citizens they might represent. Under our increasingly complex constitutional arrangements, decisions taken in Westminster have a considerable bearing on the actions – and freedom of action – of the devolved bodies. Without any kind of input into those Westminster decisions, an important interest goes unrepresented.

10. For example, there is no political forum where the Mayor of London can debate the future of London transport with the UK government. As a result, the debate has been forced into the law courts.

11. Paragraph 41 in the White Paper treats the argument for indirectly electing the members of the upper house merely as a means of selecting them, rather than reflecting on the fundamental transformation in the British political system that is currently taking place. In particular, its dismissal of the arguments in favour of indirect election are feeble.

12. The argument that England does not yet have regional assemblies is absurd: they are in the process of being created and the aim of reforming the upper house should be to settle something for the future.

13. Equally, to assert that the devolved bodies themselves have not asked for this power is also meaningless. Some of them – as noted in the previous paragraph – do not yet exist. And for those that do, they are still fairly new and so cannot yet be supposed to have explored all their powers and potential. And furthermore, there are powers that those devolved bodies have asked for and been refused: the government should not pretend that the absence of a demand from the devolved bodies is a stumbling block.

14. Members of the upper house, elected on a specific regional mandate, will be able to play an important scrutinising role to resist centralisation where it is not needed. The Maastricht treaty introduced the concept of subsidiarity – that the power to deal with an issue should is held by institutions at a level as low as possible, and only as high as necessary. The United Kingdom needs this approach as much as does the European Union.

15. At present, and under the proposals in the White Paper, there is no resistance to the inevitable attempts by the centre to accrete new powers. Entrenching the influence of the sub-national levels of government in the Westminster legislative process would provide an important and much-needed brake on centralisation.

16. It should be noted that indirectly elected members of the upper house would have an undeniable democratic legitimacy, but would not have a mandate that competed with that of the House of Commons. The suggestion that is often made – by Lord Irvine on 24 January, for example – that elected members of the upper house must necessarily compete with the lower house is simply not correct. The role of the general election in determining the political colour of the government and the legislative programme that followed would not be affected.

Nominated members

17. The fiasco of the appointment of “People’s Peers” shows how carefully the procedures for appointment must be drawn up. Any appointed members of the upper house must be selected in order to make it more representative of the diversity of the United Kingdom and not more representative of the Westminster interests that already dominate.

Conclusion

18. The completion of the reform of the House of Lords is an important opportunity to extend democracy and – specifically – to reverse the process of centralisation that has done so much harm to British political life. The indirect election of some members of the upper house by members of the national and regional assemblies and parliaments would achieve this. Sadly, the White Paper does not propose this course of action. Federal Union suggests that it should be rethought so that it does.

28 January 2002

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