Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Jack Straw’s recent White Paper on House of Lords Reform adds another sheaf of possible ideas for breaking the century-long deadlock about how our national Parliament should be composed. Most members of the public understand that their MPs and Government Ministers in the House of Commons are ultimately the representatives to credit or blame when things go right or wrong. But too few have grasped the importance of the second chamber in shaping our laws and making decisions, sometimes against the will of those we elect to govern. Would it matter if we continued for another 100 years with an incomplete and unelected House of Lords? Unless the public have a settled view of where the buck stops in our constitution, there will always be a cynicism that suspects decisions are rigged, voices not taken into account, or misdeeds denied by politicians for which they should rightly be held responsible.
Reforming the second chamber might seem a distant issue, but we shouldn’t allow the capital city to dominant the debate entirely. Yorkshire’s voice is woefully under-represented in the current House of Lords, which is populated largely by those from the gentrified postcodes around SW1. Were it not for notable exceptions like Baroness Betty Lockwood standing up for Bradford’s interests or Lord Wallace of Saltaire with his enthusiasm for Yorkshire’s heritage, for instance, there would rarely be a pro-Yorkshire point heard.
I can understand why the simple answer of direct election to the House of Lords might offer great appeal, and this would be a step forward, although there is a danger that all of a sudden we would end up with two equally competing chambers, both claiming to ‘speak for the people’ and both squabbling over who should have the final say. We must take great care to both increase the legitimacy of the House of Lords, but at the same time not undermine the supremacy of the House of Commons. My own view is that a solution could come from indirect election, in other words, making those we already elect at a local government level also responsible for sending their leading figures to take seats in the House of Lords. While this wouldn’t create a democratically elected chamber, it would create a more democratic chamber – but one which clearly could not overrule the primary House of Commons. Indirect election in this way would also give greater meaning to the elections outside General Election year, which are in any case often used by people to pass judgment on the Government of the day when at present they have no effect on it. Creating a link between local and national in this way would be healthy for our constitution.
How could House of Lords reform in this way benefit Yorkshire? Quite simply, we need stronger regional voices fighting for the investment and changes in the law that would benefit this part of the world, making sure that transport legislation doesn’t forget the road and rail improvements Yorkshire needs, making sure that our schools system isn’t reformed as though everywhere were the same as London. And a stronger voice for local government at the national table would force Ministers to let go and devolve powers away from Whitehall, which cannot know the detailed problems and solutions as well as those closer to the community.
I feel that the powers of the second chamber could remain broadly as at present – a scrutinising and deliberative role is appropriate as a supplement to the final decision-making function of the Commons. Enriching the second chamber so that it considers and improves the quality of legislation informed by views from all parts of the country would augment its status and esteem. It would bring a new perspective to law-making, perhaps adding a devolutionary and localist presumption where appropriate, which is an important but underdeveloped influence much needed
as a check on national centralism. Improving the quality and reach of our local democracy isn’t just good for each neighbourhood individually, it is good for our nation as a whole. And this model is by no means unique: the Spanish Parliament, the Canadian system, the Australian legislature and the German Bundesrat are composed of representatives from regional governments.
MPs are to be given a free vote in the coming months about the ratio of elected and non-elected representatives in the House of Lords. While ever a non-elected element remains, I hope that this can reflect all corners of the country’s best interests; we must ensure that these seats do not simply fall back solely into the old established possession of the London chattering classes. There are some great potential legislatures from here in Yorkshire, of all parties and sometimes of no party – perhaps you should consider applying now!