Posted by: aboutalbion | June 28, 2012

UK constitutional reform

In the UK, we are in a recession that shows no signs of ending in the near future.  And yet, yesterday, the UK coalition government chose to publish definite proposals for the constitutional reform of the upper chamber of Parliament – the House of Lords.

What is not controversial is that a commitment to take action on this issue was mandated at the last general election in 2010.  However, for many reasons, all proposals for a root and branch reform of the House of Lords are controversial.  There are few people who think that now, in the middle of a recession, is the time to discuss, debate, and decide this issue.

Currently, there are over 750 members of the upper chamber.  Around 90 of these have hereditary membership, and the rest are appointed.  Of these latter members, there are 26 Lords Spiritual (senior bishops of the Church of England) who have membership linked with their ecclesiastical appointment, and the remainder are Lords Temporal (Life Peers) who have lifetime membership.

Yesterday’s proposal is for the abolition (before 2015) of this upper chamber and its replacement by a new upper chamber of 450 members, of whom 360 (80%) would be elected in regional elections and 90 (20%) would be appointed by a committee independent of the government.

My sympathy is with those who say that this is not the British way of doing things.  The British way of doing things (whenever possible) is by incremental change.

I read that action to reform the House of Lords began in earnest a century ago with the Parliament Act 1911, which began with the intention to remove the hereditary basis of membership.  By a series of smaller changes in the past hundred years, that intention has been substantially achieved.  There are now less than a hundred hereditary members remaining.

My view is that yesterday’s proposal for constitutional change will lead to a constitutional crisis (sooner or later) in that the primacy of the lower elected chamber will now be open to challenge.

So far as I can see, the current (mainly appointed) House of Lords is performing its constitutional function of bringing expertise to bear on new legislative proposals.  The upper chamber fulfils its main job of scrutinising and amending parliamentary bills proposed by the lower elected House of Commons before they pass into law.

The sharpest comment on this issue that I have heard in the past day or two is this.  “In the middle of a recession, what is the pressing question to which 360 extra elected representatives is the answer?”.  So far, I have not heard a satisfactory answer from the sponsors of this comprehensive upper chamber reform.


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