The House of Lords
The Centre's Evidence to the Commission
PART 6: The Senators.
The composition of the Senate is crucial for its legitimacy, authority and respect. At present we have a legislature that reflects a past feudalism. The division into Lords and Commoners signifies a divided society and a nation in which the majority have a second class status.
The establishment of a democratic second chamber will have a powerful symbolic importance. If our democracy is to win the allegiance of those who are now disaffected from its institutions and to maintain the allegiance of others it is vital that this chamber be capable of a new and effective inclusiveness.
The commission's consultative paper asks whether there are groups other than ethnic minorities, women and young people who are under-represented in the House of Lords! That is an extraordinary question. Is not every group other than the peerage under-represented? Any claim by this peerage to represent a broad range of British society is so absurd as to hardly require rebuttal. No examination of their incomes, occupations, gender or ethnic origins would support that idea.
The consultation papers asks whether members of this chamber should have a duty to take part in its business. That question suggests some of the dangers that are lurking in the notion of random, indirectly elected or ex-offico etc. members. For the responsibilities of governing Britain demand the highest degree of commitment.
If the commission is tempted to resort to gimmicks it should resist. In a healthy democracy the electorate take responsibility for their own government. The way in which we select our representatives should be such as to encourage the acceptance of that responsibility. Leaving it to others is not taking responsibility.
We ask the commission to recommend, in the words of the 1911 Parliament Act, "a second chamber constituted on a popular … basis."
We proposed that the Senate should be composed of Senators who have been elected for six year terms of office. Only representatives chosen by, accountable to and removable by the people, meet the needs of a democracy in which the people have ready influence and ultimate control.
In response to the argument made by the government in the White Paper that having some popularly elected Senators in a chamber that was not wholly elected by the people would give that chamber democratic legitimacy, we must say that a body that is not wholly legitimate is not legitimate at all.
The provision for each region or nation to have one seat regardless of population, with additional seats allocated according to population, would go some way towards countering the bias towards the nation's centre and towards correcting the sense that regional interests are neglected.
All Senators should be directly elected. Any mixture of Senators some of whom who were directly elected and others not, would hold the danger that those not directly elected might frustrate the will of those who were. That would undermine confidence in democracy.
If we wish to strengthen confidence in British democracy the office of Senator must be open to all. The means by which one may win or loose a seat in the legislature must be clear, direct, certain and fair to all, not at all haphazard or doubtful. There should be a clear cause and effect.
Any mix of methods by which a seat in the Senate may be filled is likely to cause confusion and doubt. To one who asks how a seat in the second chamber is achieved we should be able to say that one puts oneself forward and the electorate will choose between the candidates. If instead the answer had to be that there were a number of options depending on where you go in life; that perhaps if you become a lawyer the Law Society may nominate you through one process; or if you join a union and eventually come to the attention of the TUC it may choose you for its seat; or that you may impress an appointments commission as a person of "distinction" at some stage in your life; or if you are lucky your name may be drawn in a lottery, is not satisfactory. It would give substance to the belief that government is not subject to influence or control but rather is the reserve of an elite or the lucky and that the average person may have an insignificant influence on our governance.
It follows that MEPs, law lords, bishops would have no place unless elected in their own right, in which case they would sit as representatives of the people.