House of Lords reform: we are close to selling the pass

11 May 2011

There is much inertia on the issue of the Second Chamber, but the stakes in parliamentary reform are high, says John Gladwin.

THIS year marks the 100th anniver­sary of the Parliament Act of 1911. That Act not only restricted the powers of the House of Lords over financial matters, but also opened the door to further reform of the Second Chamber. So, we have some unfinished business, albeit 100 years later.

The Church of England, with 26 of its bishops sitting as Lords Spiritual, has a particular op­portunity to contribute to the cur­rent debate over what needs to be done. Hoping that the whole issue will go away, or praying it into the long grass, is not good enough for a Church carrying such national responsibility. Nor will it do simply to defend those 26 seats.

So what might such a contribu­tion look like?

First, there must be an un­ambiguous commitment to demo­cracy. We cannot be seen trying to support an undemocratic Parlia­ment. The opposition of the bishops to the 1832 Reform Act did deep damage to the reputation of the Church of England. It was not one of our most glorious moments. We live in a liberal democracy, and the Church needs to help in its de­velopment.

Second, there must be a careful con­sideration of what any change might mean for the whole of Parliament. How do the two Chambers interrelate and comple­ment one another in the common task of legislative work and the call­ing of Government to account? There is a danger that the reform of the Lords is considered in isolation.

Third, the past 100 years have seen significant changes in our parlia­mentary life, and, in particular, in the formation of the Lords. Change happens here by evolution, and can be secure only when it carries a wide consensus.

Finally, we need to be clear about what we look to Parliament to do, and structure it appropriately. The needs of the 21st century will not be those of pre­vious generations. It is mani­fest that the shape of polit­ical life is changing and will go on chang­ing. So we should expect our parliamentary life to adapt.

CONTROVERSY over the reform of the House of Lords has raged around the question whether its membership should be elected or nominated. That debate has got stuck on a dilemma that appears to be irresolvable.

If the House is populated by nomination, it suffers the accusation of not being democratic. If its membership is created by open election, which would strengthen its legitimacy, it risks becoming both a rival to the House of Commons and a challenge to the present balance of parliamentary powers between the two Chambers.

This is a sterile debate. It is the reason, despite much endeavour, why nothing happens. This dilemma so dominates the debate that other crucial and even more fundamental matters get relegated in public dis­cussion.

THE Western experience of demo­cracy has been fed by two living streams: our long and deep Christian inheritance, and the Enlightenment. In the British experience of the Enlightenment, reason and faith did not fall out with each other. There have been moments of conflict but, overall, faith and reason, our Christian inheritance, and public life have worked in partnership. Our constitution reflects that history.

We are in urgent need of refresh­ing the language of democracy. In his recent book The Idea of Justice (Penguin Books, 2010), Amartya Sen takes up this challenge. He maintains that we are in danger of reducing our understanding of democracy to questions concerning the structural issues surrounding public elections and the universal ballot.

These things are essential for a genuine democracy. Democracy, how­ever, needs a broader language that embraces a culture that Sen describes as one of “public reasoning”. He goes on to say that examples of cultures of “public reasoning” can be found across world history, and not just in Western democratic experience. These are cultures in which trans­parent participation by the people in the public debate about their gov­ernance is positively encouraged.

There is something of real value here to help unlock the debate about parliamentary reform. It might open the door to a holistic consideration of how Parliament is structured to meet the challenge of enabling greater public participation in public affairs. The House of Commons, as the elected chamber, guards the electoral foundations of political life. As such, it holds the supremacy. How can a Second Chamber, constructed in a dif­ferent and complementary man­ner, enrich the participation of a diverse modern society in our public life?

Direct elections may not be the most appropriate way of achieving this. Nevertheless, the outcome needs to carry the confidence of the people and be transparently representative of their interests. Thus Parliament, in its wholeness, embraces a broad ex­perience of “public reasoning”. The Second Chamber enriches demo­cracy.

THIS would open the way for a fresh understanding of parliamentary reform. On the narrow issue of what the presence of 26 bishops repre­sents, there would be a need to think imaginatively about the ways in which those who might represent our Christian inheritance, and the religious life of the people, could contribute.

Unique though our history is in still having representatives of the Established Church inside Parlia­ment, we should not too quickly dismiss the possibility of building on this rather than destroying it.

Again, if the Church of England can exercise some creative and col­laborative leadership in this matter, inside a framework of values for the whole process of reform, it might open the door to a rich new chapter for our parliamentary democracy.

Will the Church of England and its bishops need to be pro­active in all of this? Yes, if they wish to take this opportunity to recover some ground for the Christian in­heritance in our democratic public life.

The Rt Revd John Gladwin is a former Bishop of Chelmsford.

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