Sunday, 2 January 2011

A century of delay - time to act

2011 is the centenary of the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act, which curtailed the power of the House of Lords to delay money bills passed by the House of Commons. It was part of a concerted attempt to assert the powers of the democratic part of the Parliament over the undemocratic element of it by the radical Liberal Government of the early 20th Century that brought us the state pension, properly funded state schools and National Insurance. This change came at a considerable price to the government of the time and since then people have not been very keen on touching Lords reform with a bargepole.

It is a national embarrassment that this country, which flatters itself as having the "mother of parliaments", is one of the least democratic in the western world. Our second chamber is now a combination of hereditary privilege and patronage. It is embarrassing that when we lecture other countries on democracy ours is so rotten. The House of Lords was an anachronism in 1911 and is a corrupting influence now. There are arguments on how a selected chamber is effective but it is immoral that people can make our laws without us being able to boot them out.

I am passionate that we need to reform the House of Commons, of which the forthcoming AV referendum is a part, but actually the House of Lords is far more pressing. Since 1911, various royal commissions have looked at this issue, with the purpose of delaying reform.

I am told that Nick Clegg will shortly launch consultation on an 80% elected House of Lords. That is better than nothing but it is vital that it happens with the speed that issues (which the Tories support) such  as equalised constituencies have been given. History like this shows that change like this only happens when it is pushed through with urgency.

For the record, I think it is vital that the House of Lords retains its revising nature but it is vital that it gets a different mandate. A fully proportional method of election on a fixed term different from that of the House of Commons would give some balance from the "other place". Hereditary peers and bishops must stop being automatic members (they are welcome to run for election!). Then we might start to become a proper democracy, about fifty years after the rest of Western Europe.

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