Monday, 9 July 2012

Thinking about Lords Reform...

Lords reform is a tricky subject, one that isn't really about the Lords in isolation but the function of the wider political system of creating, scrutinising and implementing legislation. The current plans being put forward by the coalition are for a partly elected chamber to replace the currently appointed lords.

How it currently works:

Right now people sit in the Lords because the leaders of various parties ask them to be there. They have no obligation to attend (some Lords barely ever attend debates, vote or provide evidence on legislation, yet still claim tens of thousands of pounds in tax free tax payers' money), and due to more and more appointments they are become a partisan bunch of individuals that consist of more and more ex-MPs, MPs that the country has had enough of while they were in the commons yet now carry on taking a public wage for political work.

The problem:

The problem is that we currently have two halves of a bad system. On the one side we have people that are completely unaccountable, "unswayed*" by public opinion. This shouldn't be a problem because the Lords should be independent and expert in dissecting legislation. This is where the other half of the system comes in, with more and more Lords being aligned to a party of some kind, indeed being put in to their position by the leader of their party. Independence is a distant memory (if it was ever there before) and worse still expertise in relevant fields is being washed away in favour of a few reliable and loyal voters.

The options:

There are several options that are referred to with Lords reform, and it makes sense that while it would seem a simple and unifying issue when all three parties want reform of the Lords, the variation in what is possible offers the opportunity of disagreement and the usual political theatre.

The choices that I've seen put around, though not all are even remotely being considered, are:

  • A partly elected house of Lords with some remaining appointed (the current preferred option)
  • A fully elected house of Lords
  • A fully appointed house of Lords (as per the current system)
  • A fully appointed house of Lords, starting afresh with people that are experts first and foremost in several fields and in legislative scrutiny
  • Abolish the lords completely and just function on the house of commons
  • A "citizens jury" appointed for each piece of legislation (lol)

Further complicating the above list is that when elections are talked about, some favour STV style proportional elections, some party list, some a fully proportional national party list vote, and so on.

My view:

As I said above, Lords reform isn't and shouldn't be about the Lords alone. While they make terrible decisions from position of vested interest in their medical insurance companies or telecommunication empires, and follow a party whip on key government votes, in other cases they come in to their own as defenders of subjects such as human rights and privacy.

My personal stance is to fully elect the Lords, every 5 years.

Of course there is a concern that with a partly or fully elected chamber of Lords that we will have a drain on expertise of those available to scrutinise. Certainly with only a 5 year term this is even more likely (read on...). There is also a claim that it is the wrong thing to do while we are trying to cut the cost of politics in the UK. Also with the elections comes natural partisanship and towing of the party line.

Party lines and the Lords:

I don't, perhaps surprisingly, see this as a problem. I dislike the party system but understand that it will always come to naturally exist. My main problem with the party system is that currently one party tends to hold disproportionate power and is able to force through threats of blockades in an MPs career or even deselection at local level to ensure people vote to maintain the power of that party.

With a second chamber elected proportionally, whether through STV or open-list (the system being proposed), the power of the party is diminished. I feel this is one reason why so many Tory MPs are rebelling against the idea of this reform, they know that one things is true:

Lib Dems will finally get the power that they proportionally deserve in the scrutiny of legislation, and they (with their ambition) will never have sole discretion to power through changes such as abolishing or reverting various aspects of healthcare, education or welfare.

While the commons, elected through FPTP, will continue to be disparate to the wishes of the country, the second chamber would be one of temperance. I believe this operates as the perfect "yin" and "yang" of politics. One chamber inflates public opinion to get an idea of what they desire to be direction of policy for the UK. The second chamber, in turn, ensures that the policy brought forward is in line with the real wishes of the public.

This would mean that while the Tories could get a majority (or any party) and decide to abolish the NHS, they would not get it through the second chamber due to the unlikelihood of the some 70% of the other "Lords" being unlikely to vote for such measures. This is a good thing, and anyone presenting this as "gridlock" is glossing over the fact that only bad legislation that the public has not actually voted for will be blocked.

The cost:

I dislike arguments about cost when it comes to politics. When you walk in to a garage and they quote you £50 to do your car repairs, while the rest quote £300, you deserve everything you get if you choose that cheaper garage, and all the problems that follow.

The answer to making politics more reasonable in the eyes of the public is not to reduce the cost, all this will do is reduce the numbers of politicians, reduce how long they have to balance meeting their electorate with reading up on the laws they're passing, and in turn make people more angry when bad legislation is passed.

Politicians need to be seen as more valuable. Their salaries may be high but people wouldn't complain about this if they actually understood the country better, instead of being so constantly and hopelessly out of touch.

A such this idea of trying to do things cheaper isn't one I entertain. If (and it's still only an if) the new proposals lead to more expense then so be it. If they perform their function better than the current Lords then we have got a good deal.

Besides, any such expense will still be a complete drop in the ocean compared to the public purse.

5 Year Terms:

I don't agree with the idea of a 15 year non-returnable "term" of standing for election in the second chamber. It is inflexible to changes of current opinion, and if you are using a proportional system of election then your intent must be to reflect the will of the nation. Restricting elections to only turn out one third of all politicians in the second chamber every 5 years, leaving everyone in post for 15 years each, means that proportionality will only exist in bubbles.

While I'm not against the idea of staggering the elections, much in the way council elections are done (which can actually help to maintain proportionality and avoid chaotic swings of power) every politican should be out of their post after 5 years. That is unless they are re-elected.

Yes, there is no reason to say after 15 years that someone is "done" and no longer able to be a politician. If they are good at their job, and the public/party agree with that, then they should be able to keep standing. MPs can, so there is no reason why someone in the second chamber couldn't.

There is a danger, I feel, if the system was introduced that parties would simply use the second chamber as a "training ground" for the commons, putting younger candidates through 15 years of legislative scrutiny before letting them finally stand in a seat if they've proved loyal enough to get a seat in the commons, and perhaps a governmental position. Such things would belittle the political system, not enhance them.

Expertise:

The trouble is that expertise isn't guaranteed with elections, especially not with 5 year terms (unless someone happens to stay elected for decades!). We can rely on the open-list system, and hope that parties will put forward experts in their field rather than pliable individuals with a loyal heart, but that would be foolish.

It is entirely natural that with these changes we will lose experts. It is probably for this reason that the consensus is to keep some Lords appointed, such as Bishops, so as to keep a buffer of "expertise" around, especially on the issue of religion.

However I believe that looking at this issue of a "brain drain" on the second chamber is missing the point.

Three "chambers"

Let's say that somehow political deals are made great enough for this legislation to pass, if any referendum is forced then the public vote yes because the main faces of each party all go out together and campaign shoulder to shoulder for greater democracy (Yeah, I know...)

What we're left with is two chambers, one that is responsible for the proposal of laws, ensuring it's "primacy" or power over any others, and that is used to create the executive, and the other that is purely legislative and only exists to scrutinise legislation, passing it through the filter of a proportionally elected set of politicians.

What we are missing is independent scrutiny that has power.

Right now we have independent experts turn up to provide evidence on legislation. Where law is involving human rights especially we will see organisations such as Liberty pitch up and suggest their amendments to legislation, while the Police may give counter-claims and a different perspective that supports the law as written.

None of it is binding though, these are people that are incredibly informed and knowledgable about their field and yet their word is only advice. How it is taken depends entirely on the integrity of the politicians listening to them.

A third "chamber" which operates on a much more fluid basis, with permanent individuals with solid constitutional and legal knowledge to deal with legislative concerns both domestic and European, and temporary experts drawn in to provide their experience and knowledge to the process of amending law, would serve to take from the responsibility of the commons and a second chamber (currently the Lords) the requirement of ensuring that the law is workable, in line with all other laws, and doesn't result in any unintended side effects.

A good case in point would be the ridiculous "Auto-block porn" law that has resurfaced. While the two chambers can argue as much as they like about the merits of requiring ISPs to block porn as default, an expert chamber would be able to write off pretty much all of the law in the bill due to it being simply impossible to put in to action or enforce. Even the current Lords, with all of their alleged expertise, are likely to fail to understand such nuances, and given the highly religious motivation behind the law there will be pressure to ignore actual knowledgable people that can currently only give their advice.

Of course this chamber will, unfortunately, never exist. It will always be criticised by both elected chambers as a "wrecking chamber" that doesn't act to the wishes of the public. Even though it is doing the most important work of all, in grounding the law's provided in reality, and protecting everyone's legal rights against existing laws and standards, it's hard to wrench the power away from politicians that want to write laws that can be ambiguous enough to be exploited later on.

Edit: To clarify, I would see this "chamber" or body as something that is formed for every bill BEFORE it is put to scrutiny. The biggest problem with legislation is that it's hugely flawed and there is only enough time to fix it slightly. This level of input at a "draft" stage would ensure that the truly insane side of some legislation would be filtered out before MPs had to waste their valuable time arguing against it too (if they catch it at all).

Conclusion:

Even though it may be imperfect, I still stand behind a fully elected second chamber. I don't believe that we will lose a great deal of expertise as long as the parties have a level of integrity over who they pick to run, but I also don't believe that the Lords is a universal board of knowledge that stops bad legislation all the time anyway.

In the balance of all things, my priority will always be for legislation that is forced to follow public wishes. Aside from a few examples this reform will by itself stop extreme legislation through the dilution of power in a second chamber.

But ultimately such a change will not change the world. It won't stop workfare, it won't create more jobs, it won't stop people with no technical knowledge of the internet continuing to erode freedoms. It may over time help though, and I firmly believe if we had a Lords that was formed as it is intended in the programme set out by government, the changes to the NHS, to the welfare system and to those on benefits would have been no-where near as severe as they have been.

Tories may shout this as an example of why it is such a bad idea, but I believe they are in the minority, and that the majority of us wish we had that protection of "gridlock" in the last couple of years.

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*I say this in reference the the public being able to apply direct pressure. There is no question that the Lords, like anyone, understand the mood of the nation. However they aren't necessarily pressed to vote that way as there is no way to punish them for going the wrong way.