Tuesday, July 15, 2008

 

Straw's White Paper on Lords Fails to Lighten our Darkness

In March the saga of reforming the Lords seemed to have lurched a step closer to resolution when the Commons voted by some considerable majority for a more or less 100% elected chamber. That was promptly defeated by the upper chyamber itself which voted to maintain a wholly appointed set-up. Well, it was at least symetrical: the elected Commons wanted to see its reflection in the new chamber while the appointed Lords wanted business as usual. But the Lords must know that its anomalous, undemocratic provenance in a democratic system has had time called on it by the 1999 reform which abolished hereditary peers apart from the residual 92 left as a compromise with the die-hards. Now the hoary old question has arisen again with a third white paper in seven years.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary explained the proposals yesterday:

1. the size of the chamber would be reduced from its present 746 members to one of 400-450 or perhaps even less; the 92 hereditary peers would be jettisoned.

2. peers would be elected for a cycle of three terms of 12-15 years.

3. peers would be paid a taxable income of £50-60,000 p.a.

4. becoming a peer would not carry entitlement to sit in the Lords.

5. the Lords would retain the same powers and functions.
Straw declared:

"With the introduction of elected members into the second chamber, we have to ensure that the mandate of the Commons and the Government it sustains continues to hold sway. The membership of a reformed second chamber should be such that it could not challenge that mandate.''

However these proposals did not please all reformers because:

i) they will not be acted upon until after the next election. In fact, parties will feed proposals into their manifestos and the white paper's function is merely to 'generate further debate'.

ii) the elected proportion remains to be decided. This will be contentious and crucial if only because inclusion of bishops will not be retained in a wholly elected chamber.

iii) the means of election to the Lords also remains to be decided. Again, this will be immensely contentious as it will have a direct bearing on electoral reform for elections to the Commons.

iv) no-one has suggested what will happen to existing peers; will they consigned to the ranks of the rest of us? will they retain their titles but not sit in the legisdlature? We are not enlightened.

Straw's proposals were instantly attacked by a variety of opponents:

a) on behalf of 61 crossbench peers Baroness D'Souza attacked the proposals as likely to challenge the primacy of the Commons:'I believe this is undemocratic, unacceptable and possibly unconstitutional'.

b) Shadow Justice minister Nick Herbert questioned the proposed new size of the Lords, arguing for one of 250-300 as in many European countries.

c) Some big guns are in the opposition camp, including: Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice; Lord(Andrew) Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, and Baroness(Betty) Boothroyd, the former Speaker.

So will this white paper contribute to a resolution of one of our most enduring constitutional problems? No, it will most likely merely add to the confusion and the dissension; as Peter Riddell observes, there is no 'consensus'. But if it becomes an item in manifestos in 2010 a mandate for some kind of cghange- probably by a Conservative government- might just then emerge.

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