Paul Finch’s letter from London: Reform of the House of Lords has failed because it hasn’t addressed who should sit in the second chamber
The trouble with the century-long failure to properly reform the House of Lords is that is has invariably been seen as a political question, often party political. Even if the current proposals succeed, ultimately they will fail because they do not address the real question about what a second chamber is for, and therefore who would most usefully populate it.
Suppose the challenge was presented as a design problem, scoped and defined, with a series of options presented as a consequence. What might that generate?
This is something my World Architecture Festival colleague Jeremy Melvin and I have discussed for many years, and which I would like to present to you as a modest proposal.
A revising chamber should not replicate the House of Commons. Rather, it should incorporate a far wider range of society, a greater range of ages, a greater guaranteed proportion of women and other minority groups, a greater range of religions, the full range of professions and a greater range of international experience. If the above were a design brief, what might an emerging design look like?
One model we like is that of the Lords Spiritual. These are peers by virtue of their role as bishops and will be entitled to the position for as long as they are in their jobs. They are not elected as such, but the General Synod has democratic structures, and they sit in the Lords not just as individuals but also as representatives for the organisation.
Would it be possible to take this model and apply it more widely? Could, for example, architects be represented via an independent institution that used democratic procedures? Indeed they could.
But there is no need for the idea to stop with professions. Any group that believes it should be represented could apply for consideration. There would be some obvious and automatic choices: all the major religions should have key figures in the Lords. So should the groups representing all the major ethnic groups, ditto those representing women, trade unions, employers groups, universities, student and so on. You can fill in the names of the organisations without much difficulty.
But, you ask, who decides which groups should be represented and which should not? Our answer is the Boundaries Commission, which would be asked to extend its remit from geography to considering the constituent elements of the Big Society. You could create a new body, but in the interests of economy one could use an existing organisation that already has to make difficult judgements.
So each group that wanted a seat at the table would make its case on the basis of its importance to society. There would be bonus points for organisations that have robust procedures to elect or appoint representative figures.
In respect of internationalism, representatives of Commonwealth countries might sit in the Mother of Parliaments, adding the experience and gravitas that derive from being the largest international grouping in the world after the United Nations.
The desired outcome of this proposal is that a truly representative upper chamber, elected or nominated by the widest possible range of interest groups, would sit as a revising chamber with the limited powers that currently exist. It would not be a replica of either the lower house or the European Parliament. Members would sit in the Lords for as long as their ‘constituency’ wished, but a minimum of five years might be helpful, with that period absolutely not related to conventional electoral timescales.
To ensure that the business of the upper chamber could be efficiently conducted, there would need to be working peers nominated by the main political parties, but their role would be related to whether or not they were needed and would not be life-long.
So there you have it. There are of course other details to be determined, such as location (preferably not the existing House of Lords), but think of this as an outline planning application. Over to the politicians.