Leader: Lords reform: return to the drawing board

16 November 2011

THERE are many metaphors that might be applied to the House of Lords, but a contemporary reference would be to a piece of old software. The operating system was created in the mists of time, i.e. more than five years ago, and repairs are generally effected by adding new functions, not removing any of the old ones. Navigating round the system is slow and difficult, but it is familiar to those who have used it over the years, and so can still be made to work. A new system, on a new platform, could do the job much more simply and efficiently, but new software is always more costly than supposed, and you can be sure that it will contain unforeseen bugs that will necessitate another re­form further down the line. And, of course, nobody remembers to check whether the new software is compatible with any other system in use in the organisation.

At the end of last week, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York gave their considered response to the draft Bill on parlia­mentary reform, which recommends a Second Chamber that is either wholly or mostly chosen by election. If an appointed element remains, the Bill allows for the retention of 12 seats for diocesan bishops. The Archbishops, in effect, challenge the premise of the Bill: the case has been argued convincingly for the reform of the Second Chamber, but the remedy of direct elec­tions is little more than an assumption. Elections would in­variably attract the attention of the political parties, and thus damage the independence of the House; they would create a House that would almost certainly challenge the Commons on grounds of legitimacy; they are unlikely to add anything new to public confidence in parliamentarians; and, if the elected mem­bers are salaried politicians, as proposed, the new system would cost considerably more than the existing one. None of these ob­jections is new, but neither has any been answered convincingly.

The impression given is that Lords reform is being driven by ideology, much of it a legacy of the old Government, and that any deviation from the set path might result in an onset of reason­ableness, which no adversarial system can welcome. The Arch­bishops must be wondering whether they have wasted their time, given the lack of enthusiasm in the present Government to tackle the faults of the present House of Lords; but the decade-long debate is becoming an embarrassment, and there is there­fore a danger that whatever solution is sitting on the table when the Government looks round will be snatched up and applied. The problem with such a long and theoretical debate is that, once the ball has been retrieved from the long grass for the umpteenth time, to employ another metaphor, most of the interested players have wandered off out of sheer boredom. The Archbishops are to be commended for their patience and their vigilance.

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