Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Should we elect the Lords?

Grace Weaver, Secretary

The House of Lords in its existing form, despite its drawbacks, is preferable to all the possible alternatives. Appointed Life Peers have all the advantages of expertise, professionalism and independence that enable the second chamber to perform its functions of scrutinising the government and improving the quality of legislation effectively.

A wholly elected second chamber would make Parliament as a whole less effective. If the second chamber was elected, it would be as legitimate as the Commons. Either it would be given as much power as the Commons, or it would be a lot more assertive in using its existing powers. Either way, this would probably result in political gridlock quite often, with the second chamber blocking the decisions of the Commons all the time. If proportional representation was used as is usually suggested, the second chamber would have a higher proportion of opposition party members than the Commons. This makes the potential for political gridlock really high. It is clear that the House of Commons must be supreme, if only because this is only way that the country can be governed effectively.

One of the most important assets of the current House of Lords is the fact that its members can speak their minds without fear of losing their seat. They can look at issues with a long-term perspective that politicians in the Commons lack. If they were elected, their independence would be undermined, since they would be looking only as far ahead as their next election. The independence that crossbench peers add to the chamber (they are peers without a party allegiance) would also be lost if the chamber was elected. Crossbenchers can speak their minds even more than life peers who have a political allegiance, however weak. The independence of the House of Lords and its importance in safeguarding civil liberties was displayed when it voted to amend the government’s Racial and Religious Hatred Bill in 2005 to include safeguards of freedom of speech. In 2006, the Lords defeated the government three times on ID Cards.

The choice between an elected and an appointed chamber is a choice between second-rate politicians and professional experts. Life peers are usually chosen for excelling in their field. They make the quality of debate in the House of Lords extremely high, arguably better than in any other second chamber in the world. The expertise and independence of the Lords also mean that they can effectively perform their duty of revising legislation – spotting loopholes and improving the detail of the legislation. These qualities also help them to ask more intelligent questions of the government, so they are better at scrutinising the executive and holding it to account. They are not concerned with scoring points against the governing party, but instead with ensuring that the country is governed in the best way possible. The type of people that would stand in elections to the second chamber would be those who failed to achieve a more high-profile political office such as that of MP. The last thing we want is a house full of second-rate professional politicians.

Rather than a wholly elected House, many people favour a hybrid, part-elected part-appointed second chamber. One of the problems with this is that it would produce two classes of peers – those with elected legitimacy and those without it. The elected peers could claim that their votes held more weight than those of unelected peers. This used to occur with hereditary peers – Labour saw votes carried by them as having less weight than votes carried by a majority of life peers. As for the elected peers, the same problems would apply to them sitting in a hybrid chamber as with a wholly elected chamber.

So there you have it – keeping the House of Lords in its current form is in the interests of this country. None of the alternatives can rival it. The second chamber is vital for protecting our democratic constitution, our human rights and our civil liberties; we can’t afford to experiment with it when it’s clear that the experiments will fail.

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