Two Lords a-Leaping
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd May, 2007
There was a refined debate on House of Lords reform at the Kensington and Chelsea LibDems’ ‘Food for Thought’ tonight, with the peers Matthew Oakeshott and Bill Rodgers respectively arguing for and against a predominantly or wholly elected second chamber. LibDem MPs are quite clear about their line: they would like to see an 80-100% elected House, with the elected members serving for a single period of 12 years — a proposition which seems sensible to me. The elections would be under an STV PR system using regional lists, probably the same areas as the current Euro-regions. If the House were reduced in size to about 450 members, as Matthew Oakeshott suggested, that would mean almost twice as many representatives for Greater London in the Upper House as we have in the European Parliament, which should guarantee fairer representation than at present. As Matthew said, the current make-up of the House — although containing many fine people — is overwhelmingly old, white and male. In fact, the average age is 68.
However, Bill Rodgers — who has often described himself as the fourth of the Gang of Four, though he went on to be Leader of the LibDems in the Lords — argued that having a second elected chamber would cause terrible rivalries with the House of Commons and provoke instability for years to come. He was totally opposed to any hereditary peers staying on, however, and would like to see an independent selection panel, rather than the current system, where effectively peerages are in the gift of the Prime Minister (albeit after consultation with the leaders of other parties). But his strongest argument was that the House of Lords has been working rather well as it is and benefits from its often highly qualified specialists in a wide range of fields. Interestingly, although a straw poll at the beginning of the meeting showed a small majority in favour of a largely or entirely elected Upper House, at the end of the debate, Bill Rodgers’ counter-proposition won by a single vote.
It is 96 years since the then Liberal government first talked of an elected House of Lords (or Senate or whatever it would be called), ‘in time’. The question is: has that time now arrived? The answer is far from clear.