Friday, November 11, 2011

The Archbishops on House of Lords reform

I've been reading the Archbishops’ submission to the Parliamentary Joint Commission on House of Lords reform (found here). Generally it seems good: the gist is “we believe an elected House of Lords would be damaging to the proper function of Parliament, though some reform is necessary. However, if you insist on having an elected House of Lords, here’s what we think about the proposed legislation”. A couple of points to note:

1 – They refer to the ‘political consensus reflected in the 2010 General Election manifestos’ (paragraph 7). This fails to see a crucial argument against an elected Upper House on the basis of the manifestos and the Salisbury Convention[1]: the voters were not presented with a choice at the 2010 election, as all three main parties included it in their manifesto. Thus, whilst the 2010 General Election demonstrated a party political consensus, it did not demonstrate a general political consensus. It seems a bit odd to speak of the necessity of those who help to make our laws being democratically elected when advocating a policy that has not, in any meaningful sense, been put before the public.

2 – They miss an opportunity to strengthen the general case for an appointed Upper House by opening themselves up to accusations of self-interest. I happen to support the place of bishops in the House of Lords, as strengthening the general spiritual discourse of the country at a time of increased secularisation. However, I would be perfectly happy to sacrifice the bishops if it meant keeping an appointed Upper House, and I believe that they should be willing to do that too. The effective functioning of a bishop is not dependent upon their membership of the House of Lords; the effective functioning of our parliament does require an appointed House of Lords, as the Archbishops’ arguments help to show.

3 – Finally, and perhaps least contentiously, I was very pleased to see the key point in paragraph 12: if the role of the Upper House in relation to the Commons is seen as desirable, then “the argument that such a chamber can only be effective and have proper legitimacy if it is wholly or mainly elected is no more than an assertion”. Nick Clegg, in introducing the draft bill in the Commons on 17 May made the statement that it is a fundamental principle that a body that has a role in making laws must be democratically elected to be legitimate as if there could be no further argument to such an obvious statement. Not true: the statement is not obvious, and even if Clegg is right, there is plenty of scope for argument. I happen to think he’s wrong (apart from anything, we don’t elect our judges, but one doesn’t hear many mainstream complaints there), and that so long as the dominant body of government has democratic accountability, efficiency and expertise should be the driving factors in the other bodies.

[1] Attempts by the government to argue the Salisbury Convention here also fail to note the Lib Dem objection to the Convention itself. See page 6, here.

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