The House of Lords

The Royal Commission Reports

The confused state of Britain at the start of the 21st century was again in evidence when the commission on reform of the House of Lords published its report, a month late, on 20 January 2000. The report and the reams of evidence taken by the Commission were made available on CD-ROM, that very 20th century innovation. But the "Crown copyright" document opened with a feudal and nauseous salute to "the Queen's most excellent majesty."

The recommendations were no better than expected. They offered no hope for the completion of the democratisation of the British legislature.

Chief Recommendations.

Little change to the power of the House to legislate or challenge the government.
A huge 550 legislators, a maximum of 195 elected, mostly un-elected (the majority recommendation of the commission was for only 87 elected legislators).
A12-member commission to appoint the majority of legislators.
The elected legislators to be chosen regionally, probably not by a direct vote.
Fifteen year terms of office for new legislators.
The current un-elected life peer legislators-for-life to keep their seats for as long as they like.
The Church of England (whose churches are attended by a small minority of Britons) to appoint 16 cleric-legislators to the House. Other Christian denominations to have 5 seats and non-Christian faiths to have by right another five. Britain would thus continue to be the only democratic society that gives seats in the legislature to representatives of religious groups.
The supreme court to continue to be a part of the legislature.
Thirty percent of the legislators to be women and five to six percent to be from ethnic minorities.
Part-time legislators to be encouraged, with no obligation for legislators to attend at all.
No name recommended for the new chamber and no title for the legislators.

To be fair it should be reported that the Commission did make some decent proposals.

The new legislators in the second chamber should not be made Lords.
No hereditary Lords would have a seat by right.
Legislators would not be appointed by professional institutes, nor be selected at random (both proposals which the Commission was asked to endorse.)
The Prime Minister would no longer be able to appoint legislators.
The House would have more responsibility for scrutinising secondary legislation and for questioning ministers, but no new powers to back-up these duties.

A democratically elected and accountable House was rejected by the Commission because

1."It would represent a challenge to the pre-eminence of the House of Commons" and
2. It "Could not be broadly representative of the complex strands of British society."

The cautious report of the Commission is a reflection of the government's strong opposition to any reform that would result in a second chamber better able to challenge the growing power of the executive than the House of Commons. The press has reported that Prime Minister Tony Blair would like an entirely un-elected chamber. And the Labour Party's chief supporter on the Commission, Gerald Kaufman MP put up a strong fight to keep to a minimum the number of elected legislators it would recommend.

Nothing will be done about the recommendations unless the government and the House of Commons take action. Government spokespersons have denied that they find even the Commission's weak proposals for reform too much of a threat to executive power. However, some press reports have suggested that the government intends to drag its feet at least until after the next general election, which may be in 2001. It has even been reported that some minister expect Tony Blair to keep the second chamber as it is, complete with legislators-for-life, some of whom inherited the family seat in the legislature.

There was wide-spread dismay at the Commission's report. Both Liberal-Democrat and Conservative parties condemned the proposals. The Liberal-Democrats described the report as "a sell-out to the establishment." A trade union leader and Labour MPs were also prominent among critics. Most national newspapers were also critical of the report.

The Centre's view of what is needed is set out at length in our evidence to the Commission. It is also reproduced in the Commission's CD-ROM.

The "Royal" Commission's Members

Five of the 12 members of the commission were legislators-for-life:

"Lord" Wakeham - former Conservative Party minister of state.
"Lady" Dean - former print trade union general secretary.
"Lord" Hurd - former Conservative Party minister of state.
"Lord" Butler - former senior civil servant.
Richard Harries - bishop of the Church of England.

The other 6 were not un-elected legislators, though 1 was a member of the state-recognised "nobility:"

"Sir" Michael Wheeler Booth - former parliamentary official.
Gerald Kaufman - Labour Party member of parliament.
Ann Beynon - business executive and member of Welsh Language Board.
Bill Morris - transport workers union general secretary.
Anthony King - professor of government.
Dawn Oliver - Liberal Democrat professor of constitutional law.
Kenneth Munro - head of Scottish Public Policy Centre.

For an insight into Anthony King's views on democracy take a look at this contribution to Atlantic Monthly.
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