Friday, 28 May 2010

The Newest Peers of the Realm

So the House of Lords will soon to be getting some new members; Michael Howard, the former leader of the Conservatives, Ian Paisley, former First Minister of Northern Ireland, and John Prescott, former Deputy Prime Minister who became world famous when he punched a voter during the 2001 election campaign.

To be a peer of the realm is not a bad life, being able to influence legislation without having to worry about annoying things like elections. The new members must be wondering though, how long they'll have to relax in the Lords before the chamber is pulled down around them.

The question of how the United Kingdom, which claims to be one of the oldest democracies in the world, can have an unelected upper chamber of the legislature is long established in British politics. In the last election, all three main parties promised to reform the Lords, making it more democratically accountable. Although the Conservatives said this was not a major priority, and also Labour had promised to reform the Lords during the previous three elections. Though to be fair to Labour, they did remove most of the hereditary members of the Lords. Before the last government's reforms, you could join the House of Lords by inheriting the position from one of your parents. Thanks to Labour, this is no longer the case, but that was more than a decade ago and there hasn't been much change since then.

These days, in order to be a member of the House of Lords for the rest of your life, all you need is to be made a Life Peer by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. Church of England bishops are members automatically, and until last year the Lords was also home to the twelve judges which made up the last court of appeal in the UK, but they have now moved to the newly created Supreme Court across the road from Parliament.

Although still unelected, the Lords is no longer a house of nobility, and it now more closely resembles the Senate of Canada or the Seanad in the Republic of Ireland. In both these places, members are chosen by elected representatives of the people, but not by the people themselves.

There have been consistent calls for a completely elected House of Lords since the days of David Lloyd George, who had historic battles with the disruptive upper chamber and eventually managed to significantly reduce their power over legislation which had been approved by the elected House of Commons. Even Lloyd George could not bring democracy to the Lords though, and in the end he accepted a peerage himself, dying just a few months later (although I don't it was as a result of joining the Lords).

Now the coalition (or at least the Liberal Democrats in the coalition) wants to get on and finally complete the process of reform by taking that final step and having an elected upper chamber. Although there are inevitably a few issues which need to be sorted out first.

A concern with House of Lords reform is the people who would be lost if the chamber was elected. Anyone can be appointed to the Lords, and often some of the great minds of the day have found themselves being offered a peerage. Currently, Robert Winston sits in the House of Lords and is able to comment on and amend legislation as it goes through Parliament. It seems unlikely that people like Lord Winston would want to put themselves up for election, so they would be lost if any major reform to the Lords was to take place.

One other reason why, in recent times, many people have been reluctant to change the Lords is that, bizarrely, the unelected Lords have a strange tendency for standing up for democratic values a lot more than the Commons. Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights groups Liberty, once described the House of Lords as the "guardian of fundamental rights".

For example, in 2008, 42-day detention without charge (described by some opponents as an affront to basic freedom) was forced through the House of Commons, in which Labour had a large majority. But when it reached the Lords it was blocked and never became law. There is a fear that this culture of standing up for democracy against the will of the party in government might not survive if the members of the Lords feared punishment from their party bosses at the next election. Meaning, ironically, having a wholly elected legislature might result in the UK becoming less free and democratic.

So it looks like it is going to take a while to sort out all of these issues, perhaps the new Peers announced today will have some time to get comfortable on those red benches.

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