Draft House of Lords Reform Bill - Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill Contents

Dr Alan Renwick—written evidence

1.  This submission is accompanied by a copy of the Political Studies Association's publication, House of Lords Reform: A Briefing Paper, which I wrote. The briefing paper draws on extensive evidence from the UK and other countries and sums up what we can say about the likely impact of various aspects of the government's reform proposals. It is not my intention to duplicate the briefing paper here (I understand that it has already been sent to all members of the Committee). Rather, I shall briefly highlight five points that I regard as particularly important. The first three of these defend the government's proposals:

·  claims that the proposed reforms would destroy Commons primacy are greatly exaggerated; in fact, they would probably lead to a limited increase in the power of the House of Lords, and this change might well be desirable;

·  elections of the type proposed would not obviously deprive the chamber of experience, expertise, and independence, as some have presumed;

·  the STV electoral system is the one most likely to deliver the sort of chamber that most participants in reform debates want.

The remaining two points highlight difficulties in the government's proposals and suggest possible remedies:

·  the proposed move to a full-time, salaried chamber does appear likely to discourage many of the best candidates from running; consideration should be given to whether a satisfactory system of per diem payment can be devised;

·  the proposed system would do nothing to enhance accountability; while there are advantages to this, there are also disadvantages; these could be mitigated through minimum service requirements and recall, both of which would be applicable at the five- and ten-year points in a member's fifteen-year term.

The power of the second chamber

31.  The evidence suggests that the government's proposed reforms would create a more powerful second chamber, but would not threaten the primacy of the House of Commons: the reformed second chamber would have greater democratic legitimacy; but it would still be constrained by the Parliament Acts and probably by some conventional constraints, and the government would still be based in the House of Commons;

32.  There is much to be said for a more powerful second chamber: power is presently highly concentrated in the British political system, creating the danger that legislation may be passed without adequate consideration of all its implications.

33.  But our judgement upon the desirability of the proposed reforms depends on whether the revised second chamber would use its powers effectively. This depends, in turn, upon the next point: the effects of the proposed reforms on the composition of the chamber.

The composition of the second chamber

34.  The current method of composing the House of Lords is indefensible. While non-elected office-holders can play important roles in a democracy, there can be no case for a chamber whose overall party balance is shaped in significant part by the whims of successive prime ministers and most of whose members are party placemen.

35.  Election, by contrast, is clearly a legitimate mechanism for determining the composition of a parliamentary chamber. The introduction of a statutory appointments commission would also safeguard the appointments process against prime ministerial interference.

36.  Concerns have been expressed by some that the proposed reforms would deprive the chamber of its experience, expertise, and independence. There is, however, little reason to think that the creation of a largely elected chamber, on the basis proposed, would in itself necessarily have these undesirable effects.

·  Much of the experience in the current House of Lords comes from members who were formerly MPs, who move to the Lords in order to stay active in politics without the burden of having to serve and nurture a constituency. It is not clear why many of these people would refuse to stand in one further election.

·  Non-partisan experts would continue to be appointed as now. Some of the current partisan appointees are non-professional politicians who also bring expertise to the House from other fields. The willingness of such people to run for election is difficult to predict. But the differences between the sorts of election we are used to and the elections that are proposed—one-off elections in very large constituencies for a secondary chamber—are very great. We should not extrapolate from one to the other and presume that non-professional politicians will refuse to stand.

·  Non-renewable terms will promote independence. Indeed, it is not at all obvious why popular election should be thought likely to lead to less independence than appointment by the party leader. The degree of independence of partisan members and the number of non-partisan members depends also on the specific electoral system, which is my next point.

The STV electoral system  

37.  There is general agreement that no party should hold an absolute majority among the partisan members of the second chamber. Given this, a proportional electoral system is necessary: a majoritarian system such as First Past the Post or the Alternative Vote would often generate a majority for one party.

38.  Among systems of proportional representation (PR), there are three basic options: closed-list PR (such as is used for British elections to the European Parliament), open-list PR (not currently used in the UK, but widely used elsewhere in Europe), and the Single Transferable Vote (STV, used for most elections in Northern Ireland and for local elections in Scotland). Of these, closed-list PR, quite rightly, has no defenders: it can create politicians who are no more than elective placemen.

39.  Open-list PR and STV are both equally good at allowing voters to choose which of their favoured party's candidates will represent them.

In the context of the proposed second chamber, however, the case for STV over open-list PR is strong:

·  STV, unlike open-list PR, allows voters to show support for candidates across party lines. For Commons elections, there is a good case for saying that voters should be encouraged to think first about party: Commons elections are in large part about choosing the party or parties that will form the government. But this does not apply to elections to the proposed second chamber.

·  STV is far more permissive of independent candidates than open-list PR. Given the general (and justified) belief in the value of independents in the second chamber, this is a significant advantage.

STV is sometimes said to lead to excessive parochialism. But this is unlikely to be a problem in the context of very large constituencies and non-renewable terms.

40.  The ability of STV (or open-list PR) to give voters a choice of candidates from their preferred party clearly depends upon the number of candidates that that party nominates. The experience of STV elections in Northern Ireland and Scotland is that parties have, in fact, often stood only as many candidates as they hope to win seats, thereby denying voters this choice. A rather obscure aspect of the government's proposed reforms—namely, the method for filling vacancies—would, however, prevent such behaviour. Vacancies would be filled by unsuccessful candidates, so parties would have a strong incentive to run more candidates than they expect initially to secure election. The proposal not to hold by-elections would thus—perhaps counterintuitively—expand democratic choice.

A full-time, salaried chamber

41.  I have suggested that the proposed mixture of election and appointment, as well as the specific proposed electoral system, would probably have benign effects and, specifically, that fears about scaring away the sorts of people whose participation in the current House of Lords is widely valued are probably exaggerated. But another aspect of the government's proposals that has received much less attention does appear likely to have these unintended effects. This is the proposal that members should work full-time and receive a salary for doing so.


·  The current chamber benefits from the contributions of individuals with outside expertise. It is problematic if the outside experts never or only very rarely attend. Equally, however, outside experts, by definition, have other things to do. It is unclear why we should want them to attend the Palace of Westminster most of the time. It is also unclear why they would want to do so and why, therefore, they would accept membership on this basis.

·  Many of the most active members, as already noted, are semi-retired politicians who devote considerable time to the chamber but who may not wish to commit themselves full-time. This consideration is particularly acute when we consider the proposed fifteen-year term, though members would at least be allowed to retire early.

I therefore suggest that the Committee consider whether a satisfactory system of per diem payment can be devised, such that varying levels of attendance can be acknowledged. It is clearly unsatisfactory if members can arrive, sign in, and promptly leave again, thereby securing their daily allowance. But it is surely not impossible to design a system that works better than this.


42.  The government's proposals would improve the representative quality of the second chamber, but—because terms would be fixed and non-renewable—would do nothing to enhance its accountability. Such a scheme has both advantages and disadvantages.

43.  On the positive side, lack of accountability would promote independent-mindedness. Members would be freed from the game of calculating the effects of their every move upon their prospects for re-election. Non-politicians who have no desire to play this game would be more likely to put themselves forward.

44.  On the negative side, members, once elected, would be free to do as they wished. They might disregard the interests of those who elected them. They might simply never show up, but still (if the government's proposals go through) pocket a handsome salary.

45.  Given the desire for independence and expertise in the second chamber, the benefits of non-renewable terms appear great. Nevertheless, the negative effects of lack of accountability might be mitigated through two measures:

·  Minimum service requirements. While I have suggested that the reformed second chamber should be built to accommodate widely varying levels of attendance, it is reasonable to expect—as the current Appointments Commission does—that members should regularly participate in the work of the House. Minimum service requirements might therefore be set as a condition for continuing membership beyond five years and beyond ten years. The Appointments Commission's most recent appointees have participated in a little over one quarter of the votes that they could have taken part in, suggesting that a minimum participation rate of, say, 20 per cent might not be so onerous as to dissuade highly accomplished candidates while still ensuring a significant contribution. Clearly, much care would need to be taken in devising the details of such a scheme.

·  Recall. The government is non-committal on the subject of allowing recall of members of the House of Lords. If introduced, recall could not be used to precipitate a by-election: by-elections in such large constituencies would be very costly; they would also violate the principle of proportional representation. Rather, it could be used only to require a member to stand for re-election after five or ten years. A signature requirement of 10 per cent (as the government initially proposed for recall in the House of Commons) would be difficult to achieve in the proposed large constituencies, so successful recall initiatives would be rare. But such a provision should be considered as a way of providing an ultimate constraint against unrepresentative behaviour without violating the general practice of non-renewable terms.

11 October 2011

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