Reforming the House of Lords

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg delivered a ministerial statement today outlining the Coalition’s plans for reform of the House of Lords. A draft bill and accompanying White Paper outlining the government’s proposals, which are based on the recommendations put forward by an all-party committee chaired by Clegg earlier this year, are now available online. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a draft bill, you can read yesterday’s post here.

The White Paper and bill combined add up to an impressive 174 pages, most of that being the draft bill, supporting Schedules and explanatory notes. The White Paper itself is roughly 30 pages. I will provide a summary of the key proposals here without offering my immediate thoughts on the proposals since I, like many, need more time to consider them.

The draft bill proposes reducing membership in the Lords to 300 members, which is a significant reduction. Membership in the Lords is currently around 800.  Most Lords would be elected (80% – or 240 members), with the remaining 20%  – 60 members – appointed, but if the consultation process reveals support for a completely elected Chamber, the Government would consider that. There would also be 12 Bishops sitting as ex-officio members. I was livestreaming the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement to the House and when he announced that, it got a solid round of noise from the Opposition benches. Perhaps there isn’t much support for continuing the practice of reserving seats for members of the clergy.

The draft bill outlines that the reformed House of Lords would have the same functions as the current House: scrutinizing legislation, holding the Government to account and conducting investigations. The bill does not propose changing the constitutional powers and privileges of the House once it is reformed, nor would the relationship with the House of Commons change, with the Commons remaining the primary House of Parliament.

The more interesting proposals (in my view) involve how Peers would be elected and the terms they would serve. Each elected Lord would serve a single, non-renewal term of “three normal election cycles” – meaning if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act goes through, 15 years. I haven’t poured through the bill to see if there are exceptions made for hung parliaments which might interfere with the “normal” election cycle.

The elections for the House of Lords would be held at the same time as General Elections for the House of Commons, but would be staggered, so that one-third of the seats (80) would be contested in each election – similar to what is done in the US with the Senate. Elections for the House of Lords would use a proportional system. The Government is proposing the Single Transferable Vote (STV), but are open to considering other proposals, including an open list system.

As for the appointed members, they would be nominated by a statutory Appointments Commission and recommended by the Prime Minister for appointment by the Queen. These appointed Lords, like their elected counterparts, would be staggered, with 20 appointments made each election. Appointed Lords would serve the same term as elected members.

The other changes are more administrative, involving things such as salary and allowances, tax status, etc., so I won’t bother going over those as they are of less interested to me.

All three of the main parties (Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour) promised some form of Lords reform in their manifestos in 2010, so in theory, there should be cross-party support for moving forward with Lords reform (though perhaps not with the reforms outlined in the draft bill). However, it’s no secret that many MPs aren’t supportive of Lords reform, and of course the House of Lords itself isn’t very keen on the idea.

The Government is hoping to have this all done and sorted by 2015, which strikes me as perhaps somewhat ambitious. However, there should be some interesting debates ahead, at least for those of us who find constitutional and political reform interesting.

(See also this post for a look at some issues raised by the bill.)

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