Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

August Books 8) The End of the Peer Show?, edited by Alexandra Fitzpatrick

I was alerted to this book (PDF download) by the excellent Jonathan Fryer, who like me (but with more regret) concludes after reading it that the most likely outcome of the current push to reform the House of Lords is that nothing will happen. The book is a collection of thirteen essays on the subject by various figures, roughly evenly balanced between practitioners and academics (with some fitting both categories), published jointly by the (Lib Dem leaning) thinktank CentreForum and the Constitution Society. I had not previously heard of either of these organisations, but the latter's Alexandra Fitzpatrick, who edited the book, provides an eight-page introduction which summarises the essays so well that you can almost skip the rest of the book.

A couple of points are clear from the majority of the essays. In general, the need for elections to an upper house is asserted as self-evident by reformers but dissected rather forensically by other contributors. But specifically, apart from those actually on the government's payroll, support for the current proposals seems non-existent, with the Labour Party, which like the two coalition parties went into the 2010 election promising reform, unlikely to back this particular set of ideas, which do not go far enough for reformers, and go too far for those comfortable with the status quo.

Many of the contributors make the functional point that a more democratic upper chamber will be much more comfortable in challenging the Commons and the government of the day, and that the current coalition proposals are dishonestly silent about this. People vary as to whether or not this rebalancing of powers would be a good thing, but agree that it should not be so flippantly introduced. (My old friend David Howarth is particularly strong on this.)

I hadn't taken in a couple of the weirder points of the current proposals - that elected members won't be eligible for re-election ever, and won't be allowed to stand for the House of Commons for four years after leaving the upper house. I feel this critically weakens the democratic credibility of the reform - you can vote them in, but you can't vote them out. You might as well go for sortition, which is cheaper (but not mentioned in this book). And there is no discussion (not even by Richard Harries) of why twelve Church of England bishops should get to stay on ex officio, actually increasing the episcopal percentage of the house.

Finally, two of the contributors (Bob McLennan and Dawn Oliver) propose that alongside a democratic reform of the Lords, a body of independent experts should be established to take over the job of revising draft legislation. This seems to me a classic case of reinventing the wheel; the present system has essentially produced such a body anyway. (My own views have been vented a couple of times, here and here.)

Anyway, it's a good digestible set of perspectives on the debate, recommended also to Irish readers given the push for reform (or, in my preference, abolition) of the Seanad.
Tags: bookblog 2011, house of lords

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