Reform of the House of Lords

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I attended a debate on this subject at the Reform Club.  The arguments by the main speakers, Lord Paul Botang and Lord Alan Watson were put forward with verve and enthusiasm.  Had I been one of them this is what I would have said:

It may seem odd to begin with a quote from Karl Marx but I think it appropriate.  He said: ‘Bureaucracy is a circle from which one cannot escape. Its hierarchy is a hierarchy of knowledge. The top entrusts the understanding of detail to the lower levels, whilst the lower levels credit the top with understanding of the general –  and so all are mutually deceived’

Like many societies we are a nation burdened with levels: levels of class, levels of expertise, levels of income and levels of political power wielded by the elected and the appointed.  That diversity is to be applauded for it is the bedrock on which our freedoms of expression, speech and action are founded.

What has this to do with the reform of the House of Lords?  It is fundamental, for it is diversity and the acceptance of diversity which gives us liberty and makes us free.  However, even a casual glance at the CVs of MPs shows that neither these levels nor the breadth of knowledge, gravitas, intellectual rigour or expertise we see in the best of the Lords results from an election.  There is therefore no doubt in my mind that while the Commons should be composed of the elected representatives of the people, the Lords, still with the right to develop and put forward legislation, should be appointed and retain its role as a revising and advising chamber.  At its best the Upper House works.

Now, how can that be achieved?

As with all societies, whether free or shackled, bureaucracy is always with us and has a tendency, indeed is designed, to stifle competition, restrict our behaviour and thrust us all into convenient pigeonholes.  I believe that this is the motivation for the current debate on reform of the Upper House.  How convenient that the main proposals by all the major parties fits in closely with what they consider to be a process that they can manage.  Whether you use our traditional voting system or some form of proportional representation, using established mechanisms is politically and administratively convenient and gives the parties, whether or not they are in power, at least some measure of control.  Of course, it doesn’t always work as the Labour Party has so recently demonstrated.  Interesting, isn’t it that Ed Milliband is suddenly so eager to turn away from an electoral system to one of appointment!

For these reasons, along with the fact that an elected House of Lords would soon challenge the rights of the Commons, I believe that in the interests of diversity we should retain the appointment mechanism for the Upper House.

This does not mean that I reject reform.  The current process, while it is being used primarily to pack the red benches with those who have served their time (or their purpose) in the Commons is clearly unacceptable and unsustainable.  At one time, it seems to me that the balance was satisfactory but that is clearly no longer the case and one wonders whether the party managers are deliberately trying to undermine the credibility of the Lords.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt in my mind that we need an appointed House of Lords and that the appointment system is the element that requires reform.

An open and transparent mechanism which draws on the best of Britain’s knowledge and expertise in every economic, social, legal and political sector is what is required.  I am tempted by the idea that the complexion of the Upper House should be dictated by trying to achieve a genuine cross-sectional representation of our nation using the well researched and recently updated National Occupational Classification.  There are 96 major groups each of which could be asked to nominate five representatives (giving a sensible sized House of just under 500) and in this way every level and facet of society would automatically be given a voice.

However, one of the great advantages of the Lords is its breadth and flexibility and such a system would be too rigid so my recommendation is that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be fundamentally reformed with a clear brief to ensure that the Lords is genuinely representative of our society.  They could even consider the idea of advertising for specific posts or expertise.   A key element has to be that the role of the political parties through Dissolution Honours, Resignation Honours and the Political Lists should be significantly reduced so that the number of political appointments is severely restricted.

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