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Getting our House in order?

I first wrote most of this post in 2007 - yes, 2007! Little did I suspect that nothing substantial would have been achieved nearly nine years later. I am disappointed that none of the Parties have made any substantial moves on this, despite the widespread agreement and the manifesto commitments.

Constitutional reform was a central plank of the Labour Party’s policy platform since coming to power in 1997. Yet, despite many advances in this agenda – successful devolution achieved for Scotland and Wales, burgeoning regional government for London, removal of the majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords – there is a feeling that the programme ran into the buffers. Devolution for the English Regions stalled and further reform of the Lords failed to achieve sufficient majorities when considered in 2003. Many commentators fail to see the relevance or importance of these reforms, arguing that fiddling with constitutional arrangements does nothing to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. It seems, however, that the Tories are now grasping the nettle mainly, it would seem, for cynical reasons (shifting debt and tax burden away from Whitehall) but perhaps also because it is an idea whose time has come. Here are some of the prinicples I outlined all those years ago.

Principles for reform

For me, democracy is as much a theological concept and process as a political one. For the idea of each citizen exercising an equal power at the ballot box underlines the theological idea of an inclusive society, where all members are treated equally as children of God. Furthermore, as citizens are allowed to participate more fully in the process of government, so our society’s democratic institutions are strengthened and the foundations of a genuinely good society are laid.

In the light of this theological insight, the House of Lords seems anachronistic, unrepresentative and aristocratic. It is predicated on a division in society (between peers and commoners) which is hard to justify from Christian, let alone, socialist principles. Its rules and procedures remain couched in largely sexist language despite huge changes in society at large. And, most damning of all, it allows a group of unaccountable people the chance to influence, change or even block legislation which effects us all.

It must come as no surprise, then, that as a Christian Socialist, I strongly advocate changes to our democratic institutions which promote fuller participation of the individual citizen and the various communities which make up the UK. In terms of the current reforms of the House of Lords, this ‘fuller participation’ must be seen in a number of lights:

§ In terms of elections – all citizens should have a say in who sits in the nation’s major legislative body;

§ In terms of constitution – that the make-up of a reformed second chamber must properly reflect the relative strengths of the political parties;

§ In terms of candidates – that steps must be taken to ensure that those who sit in the upper house are broadly reflective of the population as a whole;

§ In terms of work – that ways of working are found which engage the electorate in political debate and proper scrutiny of the exercise of power.

To fulfil this agenda, I therefore support a wholly or very largely elected second chamber whose members serve single non-renewable terms. I believe that the STV form of PR offers the fairest way of voting and advocate open lists to allow the electorate the maximum amount of choice and power in the process. I believe the current system of ‘self-regulation’ of debate in the House should be maintained and enhanced, partly in order to show a distinctive approach from the work and operation of the Commons.

In line with other upper chambers in the world, I advocate a much reduced second chamber for the UK. We outline two possible models below, the second of which gives a maximum number of around 250 members. Since any reform would involve offering salaries to members and support staff, this reduction in numbers would keep costs within reason.

One important element of the current House of Lords is the presence of non-partisan, independent and expert peers. For this reason, we believe that any reformed system should guarantee a small number of non-party political members. As you will see below, the model outlined below suggests ways of achieving this.

Any reform must be seen to strengthen the ability of Parliament, and therefore the electorate, to hold the Executive to account. For this reason, a voting system which guarantees no party an overall majority is advocated. I also suggest, in line with others, that ministers no longer be allowed to sit in the Upper House. This would allow for a proper distance to be maintained with the sitting Government. In order to facilitate debate, however, this would mean a change to Parliamentary traditions, for ministers from the lower House would have to appear before the second chamber to speak and answer questions. This is allowed in the Republic of Ireland’s Seanad, for example, and is to be welcomed.

House of Lords reform has the potential to allow Parliament to work more effectively and to begin the much needed reengagement of the citizen with our democratic institutions. I hope that CSM members of the Commons and Lords with participate fully in the debates to come and apply Christian principles to this process.

A Model for Reform

Elections 1. 12 multi-member constituencies (co-terminus with current European Parliamentary boundaries)

2. Representation in direct proportion to size of electorate (equal to number of MEPs elected each poll).

3. Elections held every five years (at the same time as Euro-elections) with a third of the membership up for election each time.

4. Members elected to serve for single 15 year terms.

5. Elections carried out under open list STV system.

Co-opted members

1. The reformed Chamber will be given the power to co-opt up to 24 additional non-political members, to ensure a better balance in terms of age, gender and/or ethnicity. There may also be a need to co-opt members for their particular expertise.

2. These members would sit as independents and would be appointed for a renewable 5 year term.

3. All co-opted members would have to command the confidence of a majority of the House.

Ex-officio members 1. Former Prime Ministers and retired Lords Chief Justice/Lords Advocate and possible Law Lords should be made life members to ensure their expertise is available to the House.

This would give a total membership of approximately 250: 216 elected, 24 co-opted and some ex-officio.

Terms & Conditions 1. Elected members to receive the same salary package as members of the Commons. In addition there would be some provision for office space and administrative support, but this would be much lower than MPs because there would be no expectation of constituency work being undertaken.

2. Co-opted and ex-officio members would not be expected to attend every day and so would be remunerated much in the same way as peers are currently, i.e. daily allowances and expenses of office.

Conduct of Business in the House

1. The powers of the new House with regard to legislation have already been agreed by a joint Parliamentary commission.

2. The conduct of debates would remain self-regulatory, with a Presiding Officer elected from the membership to represent the interests of the Chamber and administer its Business.

3. No government ministers would sit in the Chamber, but ministers from the Commons would be allowed permission to address the chamber and appear before select committees.

4. The Chamber would be given new powers to hold confirmation hearings on Executive appointments, principally Law Lords, senior judges, and chairs of major quangos.

5. The reformed Chamber would also be given the power to convene major hearings on issues of national importance, and it would only be by a vote in the Upper House that Royal Commissions could be established.

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