Saturday, 8 November 2008

Thinking the unthinkable

The conventional wisdom is that the House of Lords must be replaced by a wholly or largely elected second chamber, although actually bringing about reform has proved difficult. It was therefore interesting to hear a talk yesterday by Professor the Lord Norton of Louth who put the case for the status quo, albeit with some reform to existing arrangements. More can be found here: Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber

The core case of the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' brigade is that the Lords is essentially a revising chamber, one of legislative scrutiny, a task in which the expertise possessed by its members plays a key role. The argument against the Lords in its present form is that it lacks the legitimacy provided by election. But if the upper house was elected, it would be in a stronger position to challenge the Commons and legislative gridlock could result.

One of the anomalies in the present situation is the continued existence of 92 hereditary peers who are selected by election on the basis of their contribution to the House. This was a compromise in which my former colleague, Professor Lord Skidelsky of Tilton, played a part. I remember him asking what the arrangements had been under the old system of electing Scottish 'representative' peers which was abandoned many decades ago.

Professor Lord Norton and his colleagues would argue that the herditaries should be allowed to 'die out' by not replacing them through by-elections when one of them dies. However, this is likely to be a long process and it might be better to create life peerages for those who are really effective.

What I do know is that I often turn to Lords committee reports rather than those from the Commons because they are more authoritative and less influenced by partisan debates. The Lords also undertakes the scrutiny of European legislation much more effectively than the Commons.

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