Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham.
The results of Tom Strathclyde’s inquiry into the powers of the House of Lords was published yesterday. It proposed that the Commons be given new powers to insist on secondary legislation (statutory instruments) even when the Lords disagree.
This reasonable change seeks to address one of the underlying controversies concerning the Upper House – the fact that, despite comprehensively losing the election between them, Labour and Liberal Democrats considerably outnumber the Conservatives in the Lords and are frequently opposing the will of the democratically elected Commons.
The Strathclyde proposal does not represent a big change – at least, when compared to the controversial question of composition, which most people arguing for reform to Lords are debating. There is a very strong argument for experts of all colours being included in the Lords. More specialist knowledge, intellectual ability and experience of national affairs is contained in the Upper House than probably any other parliament in the world. Experience is a precious commodity that easily be lost through institutional change. Although we should pay attention to the quality of nominees by all parties, and consider reducing the size of a very large chamber, our current system of appointment allows this.
Past suggestions for the reform of the Lords have quite often scarcely been about it at all. Labour’s proposals at the last general election for a ‘senate of the nations and regions’ would have fundamentally changed the balance of the UK’s constitution. It is worth considering that many of the people who advocate a fully-elected Lords, based on a proportional electoral system, are the same people who argue for a proportionally-elected Commons. Can we really assume that, in the event of such a change, they would not argue that a proportionally-elected Upper House would have more legitimacy than the Commons?
When someone says that Parliament has decided on an issue in Britain, in nearly all cases that person actually means that the Commons has decided. Power, in Britain, is closely located in a chamber of 650 men and women. A reformed Lords would be a stronger Lords. There are two ways to go here. One can suggest, as Nick Clegg did in the last Parliament, that although the basis of its composition would change it would continue to be governed by the same conventions: its relation to the Commons would not change. Or, as the Labour reformer Lord Adonis argues, a more powerful Upper House would be welcome – to stand up to the ‘elective dictatorship’ of the House of Commons.
Such proposals would not merely reform the Lords – they would replace it with something else entirely. We cannot talk about ‘reform’ of the membership of the Upper House without thinking what we want it to do. The Lords was not designed to fill its current role: as with all institutions, what it does is what it has evolved to do over time. If we changed it, it would evolve in another direction. The bigger the reform, the more radical the change in its institutional evolution.
Another option is to abolish it. But what would we have instead? Most nations the size of the United Kingdom or larger have two-chamber parliamentary systems. Only smaller ones, such as Denmark and New Zealand, have abolished their second chambers. According to Bagehot’s formula, the role of the Upper House in Britain is to ‘revise and delay’. What we have now is a good revising and delaying House. But it could be better. Lord Strathclyde’s proposals offer a welcome contribution to improve the work of the Upper House by maintaining the supremacy of the elected chamber.
The Lords can improve laws, provide much-needed experience in Parliament, and leave the Commons as the primary chamber of democratic government. We should not be too rash to cast aside the advantages of our present system for the disadvantages of a new.