24 November 2010

Blueprint for a truly representative House of Lords

Regular readers will know that I take a very dim view of the way members of the House of Lords are selected - and actually think that the half-baked changes that Labour dragged itself into making during its thirteen years in office have made it an even greater embarrassment to a modern democracy than it was before 1997. As I wrote in a post nearly two years ago:

'...there’s still unfinished business and more work to be done. To take but one example, the Blair government finally got around to abolishing the hereditary principle as a basis for membership of the House of Lords, but has left us with entry qualifications to the upper house that are as far removed from any democratic principles as could be imagined.'

Before that, we could at least mount a sort of defence - namely that the House of Lords was a feudal anachronism that successive governments had never quite got around to doing anything much about.

A 'predominantly elected' House of Lords?
Then, for all the coalition government's talk of major constitutional reforms, David Cameron's prime-ministerial debut at PMQ held out little hope for radical change when he declared his support (twice) for a "predominately elected" House of Lords - which sounded suspiciously like an assurance to the undemocratically selected miscellany of former MPs and party cronies that they needn't worry about being forced to vacate their cosy retirement home in the other place.

I do recognise, of course, that there might be a problem with a completely elected House of Lords - especially if its members were elected by a more proportional system than that used for electing MPs to the House of Commons - as it could set off a power struggle between the two houses as to which one had the more democratic mandate.

Listening to me banging on about how to bring real reform to the Lords is something my unfortunate family and friends have been forced to put up with for years.

The most interesting solution so far has come from one of my daughters-in-law. And, with the spectacle of yet more cronies being parachuted on to the red leather benches, it seems as good a time as any to share Anne's proposals with a wider audience.

Membership that's fair and representative
The principle of public service is at the heart of her system for allocating seats in the House of Lords - which would be as representative of the general population as it's possible to imagine and has the following advantages over all the other proposals I've ever heard mooted:
  • Equal numbers of male and female members would be assured.
  • The age distribution would be an accurate representation of that in the population as a whole, thereby eliminating the current bias in favour of the elderly.
  • Representation of different ethnic groups would reflect the proportion of them in the general population, unlike at present.
  • The occupational and socio-economic background of members would also reflect that in the population at large.
  • Members would hold their seats for a fixed term, and not for the rest of their lives.
  • Political motivation to obtain a peerage would be eliminated.
Too good to be true?
Er, no. We already have a well-proven, practical and efficient system that's been achieving all these benefits simultaneously - and has been doing so for a very long time.

Until now, however, it's only been used to select members of the public for jury service.

So why not also use it for selecting members of the public for service in the House of Lords? After all, if juries are capable of playing such an important part in applying the laws of the land, the same people would presumably also be just as capable of revising new laws.

The next step?
A few important modifications to the way jury members are recruited would obviously have to be introduced - e.g. geographical representation, number of members, length of service, how frequently should new members be appointed, remuneration, training, etc.

But it's surely not beyond the wit of government to appoint a Royal Commission, chaired perhaps by a judge or constitutional lawyer, and including at least one psephologist and the CEO of IpsosMORI (and/or other polling companies who know about sampling) to sort out the details and devise a system that would work.

I'd be more than willing to serve on it myself. Unfortunately, however, I don't think it will ever happen.

Other posts on the House of Lords

1 comment:

andrewha said...

The logic of this is certainly appealing on many levels. But Max I think you have to ask Anne whether revising & scrutinising laws (the HoL's job) requires the same skill-set as deciding guilt or innocence (a jury's job). If she thinks that a 'jury duty' second chamber could make laws then couldn't you apply exactly the same argument to the the House of Commons? Why have elections at all.. just select your two chambers randomly from the population jury-style - is that what she's saying?