Let's not waste time on the proposed House of Lords reform

The House of Lords works. It could be improved; tweaked here and there. But let's not waste time on the proposed House of Lords reform

With grey skies above, do we not have more important things to worry about?
Peter Botting
On 24 April 2012 15:20

If you were against House of Lords reform you could say that parliament has more important things to do at the moment than waste time on House of Lords reform. You could say that the House of Lords is the cheapest second chamber in the world. You could say that this “reform” is Lib Dem motivated and politically motivated rather than a reform. You could say that this reform is a soft target and an easy deflection of the focus away from the House of Commons. You could say that the primacy of the House of Commons will be diluted or eradicated.

You could add that future Prime Ministers will end up coming from a Senate-like House of Lords rather than the House of Commons. You could say that parliament and the Westminster bubble shouldn’t be talking about things that nobody else (that is, nobody normal) cares about. You could say that parliamentarians should be spending their time helping businesses secure finance, or export - or inviting overseas businesses to invest, instead of spending time on this reform. You could sum up your argument neatly by saying that Lords only get paid when they turn up and that the system is good value for money. 

Of course if you were for House of Lords reform, you could say that the House of Lords has freeloaders, crooks and lazy members. You could say that some members seldom attend. You could say that it is full of political appointees and cronies. You could say it is not accountable or transparent and that hereditary Lords belong to the history books. 

Of course - all of these could be said - and all of them would be true to varying extents. 

But, as a friend said to me yesterday, if we were starting from a blank page, what would we do?

We would ask, I hope, three questions. 

1. What is the purpose of the House of Lords or the Second Chamber?

2. What characteristics should it have? 

3. How best to fill it?

So what is the purpose of this second chamber? I believe its sole purpose is to be a revising chamber; a group of elders or a Non-Executive Board. Their function is to fearlessly say - “Are you sure? Have you thought about that? We tried something like that - times have changed but at least be aware of this issue or problem.”

And what characteristics should this second chamber have? It should be fearless and wise and knowledgeable. It should be full of people who come from a variety of sections of British society. It should be full of people with different experience and knowledge. It should be full of people who have something to contribute and who have an understanding of how parliament works. It should be transparent in its discussions.

It should be full of people who can think and speak independently of party affiliation when needed - people who, because of the stage in their careers, generally put country above party and career interests. It should be full of people who cannot be fired for speaking their mind but who can be censured for being criminal or for not attending or participating. It should carry and pass on institutional knowledge and experience. It should be a secondary chamber - with the elected and accountable House of Commons retaining primacy. And the House of Commons should be able to say, thanks for your advice, but we have primacy and a mandate and we are going to do what we want anyway. 

How should it be filled? Youth and energy and accountability are good for the executive positions and the agenda-driving power of the House of Commons. But that is not the purpose of the Second chamber. It should not be filled by the young and ambitious but by the wise and the thoughtful. It should not be filled by those who are good at campaigning but who are not cut out to be on a board of Non Executives or a Council of Elders.

It should be filled by people who are sought out and chosen and persuaded to join - rather than those who simply want the status. It should not be filled by those who “buy” their seats. An independent appointments panel sounds ok - but would it be proactive and search the talented out - or would they merely process applicants? Would it have found an Admiral Lord Boyce or a Baroness Butler-Sloss or a Lord Popat? All bring “something to the table”, yet  all would be unlikely, and probably unskilled, campaigners in this age of youth.

Any company would be delighted and would have very large cheque books at the ready to have the services and the wisdom and the thoughtfulness of the majority of the House of Lords members - not to mention their energy on certain issues. We are lucky to have them for the cost or their robes, a shared office and a daily attendance rate.

I think the House of Lords works. It answers the questions and fulfills the requirements I have set out above. It could of course be tweaked and improved. But I totally disagree with this proposed House of Lords reform. 

Peter Botting is a professional corporate, political and personal messaging strategist. He was integral to the NO2AV campaign and helped put the UK Anti-Slavery Day into law. He tweets at @PeterBotting and you can find more of his work at www.peterbotting.co.uk

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