The House of Lords

The Reform White Paper

A Labour government led by Tony Blair published the white paper in January 1999. It was called Modernising Parliament: Reforming the House of Lords and gave details of the formation of a "royal commission" to make recommendations by December 1999 on the role, function and composition of the House. Any reforms recommended by the commission were be considered by a joint committee of both houses of parliament. Whatever changes were finally agreed would take effect by 2002.

In the meanwhile legislators-for-life continued to be appointed. There were two interim changes to procedures, however. Nomination were opened to all-comers, not just the political parties. And an "appointments commission" now decides which non-party nominees should be appointed, as well as vetting all nominees for improprieties in their backgrounds or in the nomination process. New legislators continue to be appointed by queen Liz Windsor.

Despite quoting Tom Paine on the absurdity of the hereditary principle the government's White Paper betrayed a fearfulness about challenging the place of hereditary privilege in Britain and an absence of a strong belief in the principle of government by the people. The royal commission was to be chaired by a legislator-for-life, "Lord" Wakeham. Nowhere did the White Paper express an objection to legislators holding their seats for life. The authors of the White Paper felt it necessary to emphasise that having hereditary legislators is wrong because they give an in-built majority to one party, as if the principled objection to hereditary legislators was not sufficient. The Prime Minister argued against the hereditaries in his foreword to the White Paper on the grounds that they are hold their seats by birth right and not merit. He did not acknowledge that in a democracy legislators should hold their seats because they are chosen by the people, not on the basis of any other standard of merit.

"Merit" rather than democratic legitimacy is, however, very much what the government has in mind for the reformed second chamber. And that is because it does not want a chamber that has the legitimacy to challenge the executive, as well as because it lacks a strong belief in the people's control of their legislators. The terms of reference for the royal commission require that it recommend nothing that would put in question the supremacy of the House of Commons. The White Paper foresees an important role in the House of Lords for legislators who are independent of political parties and of the electorate. It hopes for a "significant independent presence" and for legislators whose "primary interests lie outside politics." In fact in places the language makes one think that the hereditary legislator whose distaste for "politics" is quoted below, would be the government's ideal candidate for the reformed House.

An elite of "professionals", business people, artists and retired bureaucrats was looked upon favourably by the White Paper as forming a large component of the new House. Instead of taking the opportunity to start on the separation of church and state, the government seemed keen to expand the current coterie of cleric-legislators beyond the Church of England. The place of the judge-legislators, or Law Lords, was to be reconsidered, however. And the government encouraged the commission to consider representation of the nation's regions in the "upper" House (though its reference to Britain as Northern Ireland's "mainland" does not encourage confidence in its respect for those regions).

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