Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Green Party of England and Wales

Summary

The Green Party believes that the House of Lords should be a wholly elected second chamber, elected by a fully proportional system.

An upper chamber that does not have a democratic mandate is questionable under international law.

The Coalition Agreement on democratic reform is not being delivered.

Some small changes to the House of Lords would be welcome as a short term measure.

1. Overarching Statement of GP Principle and Policy

The Green Party believes that the House of Lords should be a wholly elected Second Chamber. We wish to see a fully proportional system. This would best be achieved by a single constituency for the country and elections using an open list system with the Sainte-Lague system used to allocate seats as is used in many countries around the globe. Open lists ensure that the electorate can override the list order selected by the party. This places more power in the hands of the electorate. The Sainte-Lague system gives a more proportional result than the d’Hondt system used for the European parliament elections in the UK.

The Parliament Act, brought in exactly a century ago, was brought in with a promise that the Lords would be fully democratised. A century later, we are still waiting—the clause of the Coalition Agreement quoted below should be fully enacted, and the upper House at last elected by the people.

There is a deep sense of malaise in our country’s democratic institutions, and a very serious question as to whether Britain is a country in which the people rule (the literal meaning of “democracy”) at all. Real Lords reform is one way in which some progress at least could and should be made in this direction.

2. International Legal Position

The continued use of an upper chamber that does not have a democratic mandate is questionable under international law.

We note, for example, that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides for rights of political participation and elected representation. The Human Rights Committee (HRC) has interpreted this as requiring elected legislatures. The failure to ensure its legislative bodies are elected breaches the ICCPR.

Also the European Convention Human Rights—Article 3, Protocol 1—requires states to hold “free elections ... under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature”.

3. The Coalition Agreement

We are concerned that the democratic reforms promised in the Coalition Agreement are failing to be enacted. One important element of the Coalition’s proposals to seek to inject some life into the democratic system of this country was detailed as follows, in the Coalition Agreement:

“We agree to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation…this bill will advocate single long terms of office… In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”

While the first part of the first sentence has been acted upon, the rest has not. Failing to fully reform the upper chamber is an affront to democracy and a breach of promise. We welcome the current initiative to seek consensus at least for the interim arrangements, and stand ready to contribute to discussions further if so invited. This is our interim position only. In the longer term, we want to see a reformed second chamber whose make up is decided democratically and we accept that this means that party representation in a reformed “Lords” will not necessarily be related to the strength of the parties in the Commons.

As we understand the final sentence from the Coalition Agreement quoted above, the government is committed to ensuring that all those parties that have representation in the Commons should, if they so wish be adequately represented in the Lords also, as an interim arrangement pending eventual democratic elections. This commitment has not been realised because, despite our repeated requests for representation in the Lords, the Green Party which is represented in the Commons remains without a voice in that other House.

4. Comment on the Suggested Areas

The desirability, practicality and effectiveness of mechanisms for reducing the size of the House of Lords, including the following:

no longer replacing hereditary peers in the House of Lords when they die:

All remaining hereditary peers should be removed as quickly as possible. Not replacing hereditary peers as they die would only achieve this very slowly, probably taking several decades. Better than no change but only just.

measures to remove persistent non-attendees:

Yes, we would support such measures. Peers who failed to attend a minimum number of days during a session or who exceed some number of days without attending should be expelled. There could be exceptions relating to certain health conditions.

a moratorium on new peers:

While we support this in principle, because we believe that all peers should be elected, it depends upon how long this arrangement might be expected to last. If this was only expected to last for a few months until an elected system is put in place then we would support it. However if this arrangement is expected to last for many years then we would not support it as the current political make up of the Lords is not representative of the will of the people.

fixed-term appointments for new peers:

This may be appropriate as a transitional measure to an elected system. However it is not a long term solution.

a retirement age for peers:

It could be appropriate to allow retirement in a dignified fashion, in order to both reduce the size of the house and encourage a turnover of its members. However the Green party would not support the introduction of a specific mandatory retirement age.

The effectiveness of the current voluntary retirement scheme for peers introduced following the recommendations of the Leader’s Group on Members Leaving the House.

This does not seem to have had any noticeable impact.

The desirability and scope of a mechanism to expel peers who have been convicted of a serious offence:

This is highly desirable and long overdue.

The desirability, composition and remit of a Statutory Appointments Commission:

With 100% elected there is no need for an appointments commission. However this is currently not on the table. Consequently a Statutory Appointments Commission would be a better way to appoint new peers rather simply leaving it to party leaders.

The scope for establishing a consensus about the principles which should determine the relative numerical strengths of the different party groups in the House of Lords, and for codifying such principles:

The relative numerical strengths of the different party groups in the House of Lords should be determined by the electorate. Until legislation is enacted to enable that to happen then as a very minimum, as per the coalition agreement, it should be reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election. However it must also be noted that votes in a general election using First Past The Post system do not necessarily accurately represent the views of the electorate as a whole because people do not always vote for their preferred candidate or party. There is a lot of tactical voting which distorts the overall result.

The Green Party does not wish to see Bishops have seats in the Lords as of right. Britain is a multi-cultural society and should Bishops or any member of other leading religions wish to represent the electorate, they should seek election via the ballot box.

26 March 2013

Prepared 16th October 2013