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The House of Lords

The Centre's Evidence to the Commission

PART 7: "Independence"

In the course of the public discourse on reform much has been made of the "independence" of the unreformed House of Lords, or at least of its cross-benchers. And the Government has made much of its wish to preserve a strong "independent" element in the reformed chamber.

The case for "independent" members of the Senate and for randomly selected members seems to be based, at least in part, on the belief that this would counter a wide disillusion with party politics. But if the concern is that party politicians do not do what the electors want, it is far from clear how independents, who would be able to do whatever they liked, would provide a remedy. For government is not democratic when control is taken out of the hands of the people. If the chosen system fails to give control to the people, the sensible response is to look for ways of increasing control. Discarding what control there is would be no remedy at all. It is likely to lead to more frustration and greater resort to non-democratic means. Since party allegiances will continue to have a key place in the governance of Britain any disillusionment there may be will have to be tackled directly in any case and not avoided by the spurious device of "independence."

A system that guaranteed a place for some "independent" cross-benchers would also be without justification. If the will of the majority, as expressed through elected Senators, were to be frustrated by "independents," confidence in democracy would be weakened.

Although independence is not necessarily a virtue in a legislature, one may readily understand why the independent element of the Lords come to be seen as such. For with a legislative chamber that has no merit as representative of the people, and which has for long periods had a majority sympathetic to the minority party in the Commons, a degree of independence may have seemed to be a saving grace. And a government that can whip its supporters in the Commons when they are reluctant in their support, may prefer an "independent" second chamber to a representative one that it may not be able to coerce or seduce.

Therefore, one should ask crucially what or whom the independence is from.

The record of the unreformed chamber makes clear that "independence" from party does not guarantee that there is not a partisan imbalance. Nor did it prevent the frustration of the will of the British people as expressed through the ballot. This confirms for us that "independence" is not always a virtue.

We believe that independence may be a virtue, however, if it means independence of a party machine, rather than independence from the will of the electorate. Our proposal for Senators who would not be enticed by the offer of ministerial advancement or intimidated by the threat of withholding of such advancement, and who would serve six year terms, would make for Senators with less inclination than the Members of the other chamber to prefer the party line to that desired by their constituents. They would have greater incentives to uphold what their constituents saw as their interests.

It follows from this that political parties would have a role in the Senate. And there should be no objection to the members of one party holding the majority of seats, if that is a reflection of the will of the people. The power of the whips would be reduced however by the inability of the party machine to offer the reward of ministerial office.

It would be the electorate who would determine whether the party of government would have a majority in the Senate. However, the provision for one-third of Senators to retire every second year would make it likely that at times the majority in the Senate would differ from that in the other chamber.

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