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House of Lords: A Political Conspiracy


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The House of Commons will be debating, as if it were a matter of controversy, a principle which most other democracies accepted a long time ago - a principle which we send our armies half way across the globe to impose on others by force. It is the principle that people should elect those who govern them.

Yes, remarkable as it may seem, that principle still does not fully apply in Britain, even though we like telling the world we all but invented democracy. In Westminster, the self-styled "mother of parliaments", half the business is done by a chamber in which not a single soul has been chosen by you, me or any other voter. In the House of Lords - one half, lest we forget, of our legislature - sit 92 hereditary peers placed there by their bloodline, and another 648 peers allocated their places by the prime minister. They have the power to change the laws of this land and yet none of us has any say in choosing them.

What this looks like to the rest of the world, especially those parts of it on the receiving end of our armed lectures on democracy, is the least of it. It is a puzzle for us to explain to ourselves. We have debated it for a century, in what Robin Cook rightly called "the longest political indecision in our history". Even after 10 years of a reforming, Labour government the second chamber remains stubbornly impervious to the will of the people, unchanged bar the thinning out of most (but not all) of the hereditaries. And yet instead of a loud, united clamour from our politicians - all of them demanding that this body be dragged into the 20th century, if not the 21st - there is every chance that reform could slip out of reach next week, to languish undone for another generation. What should be a no-brainer, a tying up of an absurd loose end, is instead a battle. The man in charge, the leader of the Commons, Jack Straw, admits that when Tony Blair gave him the assignment last May, the prime minister declared it a "hospital pass".

What Blair surely had in mind was the last time the Commons tried to act. In February 2003 MPs voted on seven different options for a reformed Lords, ranging from a fully elected chamber to a fully appointed one, with several hybrid versions in between. The MPs rejected each of them in turn, thereby leaving the status quo in place for another three years. Cook suggested they go home, sleep on it, and a month later he had resigned over the invasion of Iraq. Now Straw, another demoted foreign secretary, is having a crack at a problem which has confounded Labour since Keir Hardie.

My own vote, if I had one, would be for a fully elected house: if the principle that those who govern us should be elected is sound, then it should apply across the board. What's more, maintain even a slice of prime ministerial appointment and you maintain the risk of corruption that has underpinned the cash-for-peerages affair. The only way to be sure a PM is not selling seats in the upper house is to strip him of the right to hand them out.

Still, holding out for full election could mean no election. That's what happened last time, when too many pro-reform MPs let the best become the enemy of the better: they voted down some election in favour of more election, until they had nothing. (A fully elected house and an 80% elected house both fell by an agonising three votes.) MPs can remedy that next week by voting yes more than once, to all of the three options that would create a mainly elected upper house.

They will have to be ready for the predictable counter-arguments, a foretaste of which was provided on these pages by David Steel. Once a committed reformer, he has grown used to the feel of ermine and now suggests the Lords remain pretty much as it is, a fully appointed body. How else to retain the expertise of all those wise old heads who would never put themselves up for anything so grubby as an election?

To which the best answer is that no expert is an expert on everything. James Graham of the Unlock Democracy campaign says he would be happy to defer to Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, on asteroids, but sees no reason why Lord Rees of Ludlow has any specialist claim to pass laws on, say, gay adoption. By all means call Robert Winston as a witness to a committee hearing on fertility. But granting Lord Winston a seat for life to decide on everything from local government to criminal justice makes no sense.

Besides, Steel and the others should be embarrassed to hear themselves making such arguments. Don't they realise that this was precisely the case made by those who stood nearly two centuries ago against extending the franchise? The reactionaries of the 19th century also feared the accrued wisdom of the ages would be lost if the vulgar mob were allowed a vote, believing that Britain was best governed by a class of experts. Theirs is not some dispute about procedure or constitutional mechanics. It is an argument against democracy itself.

Opponents of change say that the Commons must remain the pre-eminent chamber and that that status would be imperilled if the Lords were equally legitimate. If this means we must deliberately reduce the legitimacy of one half of our law-making body, it seems a bizarre way to run a country. Still, there are easy solutions. First, we can ensure that in the division of powers, the Commons retains the stronger hand. Second, Straw's plan envisages that only a third of the upper house would be elected at each general election cycle, so leaving two-thirds with a less current mandate than the Commons. To those worried by such things, that would help keep the revising chamber in its place.

For Labour MPs the challenge is especially pointed. How could they defend themselves before history if, after 10 years in power, they had failed to achieve this basic change? They managed, historians will say, to approve war in Iraq, and to devote hundreds of hours to the rights and wrongs of foxhunting, but this simple, obvious step eluded them. That will be a damning verdict indeed.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Colum...2022985,00.html

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The more I read about the peerages game, the more I want to shout: "Why not just sell the bloody things on the open market and give the cash to the poor?"

Cash for honours under all three main parties has reduced from absurdity to obscenity the way Britain chooses at least some of its parliamentarians. Emerging states used to wonder at the "mother of parliaments", much as they marvelled at the NHS. Now they fall about laughing. Parliament has long been run as a fiefdom of the executive but only now has the corruption of the upper house become so blatant as to attract the attention of the police...

Britain has no need for a parliamentary chamber as retirement home for carthorses. They have their West End clubs. Besides, why does democracy require two separate chambers elected on a party basis? Were a second chamber to be chosen, as in many senates abroad, on a different basis - say territorially, by direct or indirect election from local counties and cities - it might have some virtue. It would pluralise the input to Westminster debate and decentralise the culture of British politics. But such a senate stands no chance of emerging from the present debate, dominated as it is by MPs who are eager to cling to "life after death".

In which case, appointment is preferable to election, the more so the more patronage is removed from Downing Street. The purpose of a second chamber is not to rule but to debate and revise. It need not have the legitimacy of the ballot. Even now the two groups of peers regarded as most worth retaining in a reformed chamber - ex-officio bishops and lawyers - lack any political legitimacy. If these professions have reserved quotas, why not others?

A chamber appointed by an independent crown commission, subject to representative quotas (but excluding former MPs), would yield what parliament most lacks - geographical and occupational diversity. The basis of nomination would be for the commission to decide. But there should be no contact with political parties, and certainly not Jack Straw's preference for 30% political appointees. There is no reason why such a house should be politically irresponsible. If the Commons is democratic but not pluralist, let the Lords be pluralist if not democratic.

The British establishment is no longer a class or tribe. It is a shifting network of power relationships centred on Downing Street. This network was once checked by the customs of Whitehall and the courtesies shown towards parliament and the courts. These checks have been replaced by the anarcho-Bonapartism of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The House of Lords has become one of this establishment's more egregious baubles, as well as being an unofficial source of funds. Already the establishment is looking after its own. Seeing revenue from honours vanishing, it has ordered Sir Hayden Phillips to find the cash from elsewhere. Guess where? The taxpayer is to be fined the money the politicians claim they were not getting from the rich. It is a dreadful exchange, and one Sir Hayden should not have conceded.

Nor is that all. Seeing the other side of the bargain - peerages - also under threat, MPs will vote tonight to retain the upper house as offering the same trough of patronage. They will vote to keep it within their professional charge. Nothing will change. Money will flow. The House of Lords will look much as before.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2028034,00.html

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Recently, a couple of American members called the British “hypocrites”. Although I reject this as a blanket term, there is no doubt that British politicians are hypocrites when they advocate democracy in the Third World. They also often falsely claim that the UK is the oldest democracy in the world. Yet the UK still has a parliament that includes an unelected House of Lords. It also has a “first past the post” system that elects the House of Commons. This allows the current prime minister to dictate to the rest of us based on the votes of less that 25% of the adult population.

Last night Tony Blair voted for a system that would allow him and future prime ministers, to control the appointments of 50% of the House of Lords. However, the House of Commons decided to vote for 100% of the second chamber to be elected by the British people. The measure will of course be blocked by the House of Lords. That is what happens in an undemocratic state.

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The more I read about the peerages game, the more I want to shout: "Why not just sell the bloody things on the open market and give the cash to the poor?"

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2028034,00.html

Now this really is an excellent idea.

Far better to flog honours on the open market. It could all be done via a suitably crafted website.

But what to call a rationalized Upper Chamber?

- The House of Rich Twits?

- The House of Big Egos?

- The House of Plutocrats?

None seems quite right - yet all three are preferable to the 'sexist' Lords.

Some consideration should also be given to the powers of the refomed chamber.

I thought one should suffice - the power to have it's own 'reality TV' show on commercial networks.

That would involve the public and give us all a chance to expel the most noxious pomposities every week or so.

They could, of course, pay to rejoin.

Edited by Sid Walker
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Tony Benn was first elected as a Labour MP in 1950 and retired in 2001; he renounced his hereditary peerage in 1963

Tony Benn

Friday March 9, 2007

The Guardian

The overwhelming Commons vote for a fully elected second chamber marks a turning point in our constitutional history - and how relevant that history is, even today. When the Lords came into being, in the 14th century, it was made up of rich powerful landowners whom the king needed to win over to support the laws he wanted enacted. They were all appointed for life - hereditary peers came later - so that the most recent reforms, which reverted to life peerages, were a throwback to those early days.

The bishops were added when Henry VIII nationalised the Church of England. They were an addition to his power: each bishop, even today, is required to do homage on appointment, declaring the Queen "the only supreme governor of this your realm, in spiritual and ecclesiastical things as well as in temporal" - and even today they are appointed by the prime minister who could, nowadays, be a Jew, Muslim or atheist.

Indeed, the Lords has survived because it remains the greatest source of patronage available to the prime minister. And all prime ministers have used it to buttress their own power, and some as a means of raising money, a practice at which Lloyd George excelled.

It took more than 600 years - from the Model Parliament of 1295 to the abolition of the business and university votes in 1948 - to establish a fully elected House of Commons, based on one person one vote. Why then this sudden conversion by the Commons? It comes after so many botched attempts, the most recent one being the defeat by MPs of all the options put to them four years ago.

The hereditary system has long been discredited. No one would go for treatment to a man who claimed that his father was a very good dentist, or dare to fly in an aeroplane flown by someone whose only qualification was that his grandfather had flown Spitfires in the Battle of Britain.

The cash for honours inquiry, whatever its outcome, has finally undermined any remaining public trust in the integrity of prime ministerial patronage, and the proposed substitution of an appointments committee to do the job for him has not inspired any confidence.

Maybe the claim that the UK is fighting to establish democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan has inspired the thought that perhaps the time has come to win democracy here too. The fact that the decisions on Lords reform were reached as a result of "free votes", without the guidance of the whips, gives special authority to the result. It should point towards far more occasions when decisions are reached in that way.

Among the members of the present Lords who will have to go if the law is changed will be three members of the cabinet: Lord Falconer, Lord Goldsmith and Lady Amos.

Given this decision, the government must open talks with all the political parties to work out the details in preparation for a white paper and a bill for introduction when the new session opens in the autumn. There will need to be provision for the election of the new senate, as it should be called, setting out the constituencies - if that way is chosen - the timing of the election, and of course the powers the upper house will have in relation to the Commons, which must have the final say.

Much has been made of the danger of two chambers that might be in conflict. But when you consider the control that the unelected Brussels commission, the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation all exercise over government, this is not a factor. One can imagine a senate with special powers of scrutiny over the reserved powers that have not been transferred to the Scottish parliament or Welsh assembly, and it might even be possible to imagine a way that the West Lothian question could be referred to it.

Undoubtedly senate committees could and should examine and cross-examine those who now exercise great power granted to them by ministers, including political advisers and appointees who are completely unaccountable to the public.

In arguing for this major constitutional reform, no one should interpret it as a personal attack on those who have worked hard and conscientiously in the present Lords, and who have made an impact in securing changes, as for example in some anti-terrorism legislation - for they have done a good job, and some might want to stand in a senate election.

When the reform bill is presented to the Commons, it must be assumed that MPs will vote for it; but, given its radical nature, the present Lords might decide to reject it and we have to consider how to deal with that possibility.

It would be possible to pass the reform bill under the Parliament Act and see it enacted before the next general election, but there is an alternative that would be more decisive: a referendum comparable to the one which established the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. It could be argued that this would be desirable to secure a public debate, and necessary to win public support.

If all this goes through I might be tempted to stand myself - so I could devote even more time to politics.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...2029964,00.html

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Tony Benn was first elected as a Labour MP in 1950 and retired in 2001; he renounced his hereditary peerage in 1963

Tony Benn

Friday March 9, 2007

The Guardian

The overwhelming Commons vote for a fully elected second chamber marks a turning point in our constitutional history - and how relevant that history is, even today. When the Lords came into being, in the 14th century, it was made up of rich powerful landowners whom the king needed to win over to support the laws he wanted enacted. They were all appointed for life - hereditary peers came later - so that the most recent reforms, which reverted to life peerages, were a throwback to those early days.

The bishops were added when Henry VIII nationalised the Church of England. They were an addition to his power: each bishop, even today, is required to do homage on appointment, declaring the Queen "the only supreme governor of this your realm, in spiritual and ecclesiastical things as well as in temporal" - and even today they are appointed by the prime minister who could, nowadays, be a Jew, Muslim or atheist.

Indeed, the Lords has survived because it remains the greatest source of patronage available to the prime minister. And all prime ministers have used it to buttress their own power, and some as a means of raising money, a practice at which Lloyd George excelled.

It took more than 600 years - from the Model Parliament of 1295 to the abolition of the business and university votes in 1948 - to establish a fully elected House of Commons, based on one person one vote. Why then this sudden conversion by the Commons? It comes after so many botched attempts, the most recent one being the defeat by MPs of all the options put to them four years ago.

The hereditary system has long been discredited. No one would go for treatment to a man who claimed that his father was a very good dentist, or dare to fly in an aeroplane flown by someone whose only qualification was that his grandfather had flown Spitfires in the Battle of Britain.

The cash for honours inquiry, whatever its outcome, has finally undermined any remaining public trust in the integrity of prime ministerial patronage, and the proposed substitution of an appointments committee to do the job for him has not inspired any confidence.

Maybe the claim that the UK is fighting to establish democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan has inspired the thought that perhaps the time has come to win democracy here too. The fact that the decisions on Lords reform were reached as a result of "free votes", without the guidance of the whips, gives special authority to the result. It should point towards far more occasions when decisions are reached in that way.

Among the members of the present Lords who will have to go if the law is changed will be three members of the cabinet: Lord Falconer, Lord Goldsmith and Lady Amos.

Given this decision, the government must open talks with all the political parties to work out the details in preparation for a white paper and a bill for introduction when the new session opens in the autumn. There will need to be provision for the election of the new senate, as it should be called, setting out the constituencies - if that way is chosen - the timing of the election, and of course the powers the upper house will have in relation to the Commons, which must have the final say.

Much has been made of the danger of two chambers that might be in conflict. But when you consider the control that the unelected Brussels commission, the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation all exercise over government, this is not a factor. One can imagine a senate with special powers of scrutiny over the reserved powers that have not been transferred to the Scottish parliament or Welsh assembly, and it might even be possible to imagine a way that the West Lothian question could be referred to it.

Undoubtedly senate committees could and should examine and cross-examine those who now exercise great power granted to them by ministers, including political advisers and appointees who are completely unaccountable to the public.

In arguing for this major constitutional reform, no one should interpret it as a personal attack on those who have worked hard and conscientiously in the present Lords, and who have made an impact in securing changes, as for example in some anti-terrorism legislation - for they have done a good job, and some might want to stand in a senate election.

When the reform bill is presented to the Commons, it must be assumed that MPs will vote for it; but, given its radical nature, the present Lords might decide to reject it and we have to consider how to deal with that possibility.

It would be possible to pass the reform bill under the Parliament Act and see it enacted before the next general election, but there is an alternative that would be more decisive: a referendum comparable to the one which established the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. It could be argued that this would be desirable to secure a public debate, and necessary to win public support.

If all this goes through I might be tempted to stand myself - so I could devote even more time to politics.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...2029964,00.html

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