Constitutional Reform

Am I the only person in the country to think that an elected House of Lords is a thoroughly bad idea? I suppose I am coming at this with my professional management consultancy hat on, under which I advise that it would destroy single-point accountability by Parliament as a whole. The House of Commons and the House of Lords are essentially doing the same job; creating our laws and managing the statute book. What happens when something goes wrong? Who would you blame? For as sure as eggs is eggs each of your two elected members would blame the other! It is recipe for buck passing and unresolvable chaos.

Nor is it necessary. As Confucius once say, it only takes one link in a chain to break and the whole chain is broken. In other words it only takes one House to be democratically accountable and Parliament as a whole is democratically accountable. Making the House of Lords elected as well adds nothing. Except chaos. I would rather abolish the House of Lords altogether than make it elected.

But then the House of Lords does have an important role to play as a revising chamber. It is a bit like the quality control stage at the end of the production line. To do that job effectively you need people with talent and experience. Unfortunately talent and experience are seldom high priorities in an election, and indeed there is rightly no requirement for a representative to have them. People generally go for someone local or with a similar background to themselves. To acquire people with talent and experience you need an appointment system.

The only question is: who does the appointing? The problem we have at present is that the House of Lords is the private fiefdom of the Prime Minister of the day. He can, and does, stuff it with as many of his own party cronies as he can get away with. Even then we seldom get people with talent and experience! I don’t actually have a problem with the size of the membership, as members tend to attend only when they feel they have something to contribute. Given the almost infinitely wide range of subjects involved, a wide range of members and interests is a benefit if not indeed essential.

I accept that the person or group doing the appointing must themselves be democratically accountable; all that is necessary is that they are independent from Parliament. I also observe that in fact there are a number of functions and issues in which Parliament itself has too much of a vested interest. How about these for starters?
• The Judiciary
• The Armed Forces
• Granting of the Royal Assent (as a purely constitutional compliance matter)
• The Honours system
• MPs’ pay and conditions
• The Boundaries Commission
• The Parliamentary Commissioner
• The National Audit Office
• The Office for National Statistics
• The Office for Budget Responsibility
• In fact all constitutional matters and matters that should be kept independent from politicians generally.

My proposal is that we elect a quite separate Constitutional Council – it needn’t be large – perhaps just a dozen or so regional members with a minority of co-opted law lords as well, and perhaps chaired by the Lord Chancellor, who would be elected from within their own number – to take responsibility for a written constitution as well as for the above responsibilities.

In my book a sovereign constitution is about the institutions and procedures necessary to uphold democracy. It would not incorporate anything such as a bill of rights as that properly belongs on the statute book. Thus Parliament would be responsible for the Statute Book, and the Constitutional Council for the Constitution. Two quite separate tasks and documents which do not overlap.

None of this would adversely affect the monarchy, of which I am a strong supporter. An elected president could never provide the continuity and experience that all the Queen’s prime ministers, on both sides of the political divide, say they valued so much from their weekly audiences with the Queen. Nor does the monarch have any absolute powers. She has the right to be informed, and the right to advise, and that’s it. Everything else she does she does on the advice of her ministers. As a result democratic accountability is simply not relevant.

However, regrettably, we have so undermined the authority of the monarch over the past century that she can no longer act in any proactive way as custodian of the constitution. This profound weakness in our current arrangements was notoriously brought into focus by the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty. If a Constitutional Council had been in place it could have advised HM not to grant the Royal Assent to that Bill, at least pending a referendum in accordance with a written constitution, and no-one would have thought that undemocratic. Changes to the constitution itself could also require a referendum. They should not need to be frequent.

Finally I would advise that a written constitution should require all foreign treaties to contain a five-year break clause. These could default to a continuation, but the point here is that it should not be possible for one Parliament to bind its successors. I would also personally favour a clause prohibiting the courts from awarding financial compensation for non-financial loss. After all, life and limb are priceless.


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