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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Crossbench 3:20 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, we are told in the gracious Speech that proposals are to be brought forward,

"for a reformed second House that is wholly or mainly elected on the basis of proportional representation".

I am glad that a possibility, at least, remains of retaining an element of appointed independent Cross-Bench Peers.

I follow very much what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has just said. Discussion of House of Lords reform seems always to concentrate on how its Members should be chosen. Surely we should first be discussing, as a prior question, what a reformed House should do and what its role should be in the constitutional system.

In today's legislature, the House of Commons has primacy. This House has useful functions as a revising and debating Chamber and in holding the Government to account, but, in the end, the will of the House of Commons is sovereign and can be made to prevail. Your Lordships accept that degree of subordination because Members of the other place are chosen by periodic election on a universal suffrage, and we are not. Whatever the shortcomings of the electoral system, this is seen as conferring a uniquely democratic legitimacy on the House of Commons such as to justify its primacy within the legislature.

If the second House were to be wholly or mainly elected by universal suffrage on a system of proportional representation, but its functions continued to be as they are now and it continued to be subordinate to the House of Commons, how successful, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, suggested, do we suppose that the process of election would be in attracting suitable candidates for election? The British public already enjoy the inestimable benefits of participating in elections for membership of the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, local councils and the European Parliament; how ready will they be to turn out for yet another set of elections to the second House at Westminster on a system of proportional representation? What about the additional costs to the taxpayer of another set of elections and another set of elected representatives in Parliament?

For how long would a second House elected by proportional representation on a universal suffrage be prepared to accept constraints on its functions and being subordinate to the House of Commons? It would surely, sooner or later, begin to feel its oats and assert its rights. It could be expected to insist that it was no less democratically legitimate than the House of Commons-perhaps even more democratically legitimate if the Members of the House of Commons continued to be chosen by a system so unproportional as first past the post or even the alternative vote.

The role and functions of the second House would have to be reviewed and enhanced. It would deserve, and expect to be given, something much nearer parity of esteem, constitutional power and responsibility with the House of Commons. Is that what we want? Is it what Members of the other place want? I do not know the answers to these questions, but they need to be asked and answered when we are thinking about House of Lords reform.

I suggest that election by universal suffrage should not be regarded as the only means of conferring representative legitimacy on a parliamentary chamber. It would not be beyond the wit of man to devise a system whereby Members of a second House could be chosen by processes of indirect election to represent the various social and economic groups and activities which make up the fabric of national life. Such a system would at least meet the requirement of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, that it be different.

There could be groups of Members chosen to represent, for instance, manufacturing industry, service industries, commerce, banking and financial services, the trade unions, the public services in central and local government, the medical and health professions, the legal professions, the educational professions, the universities, the arts, the churches and so on.

There could be a system of quotas of Members to represent each group. The quotas would be of varying sizes, to reflect the significance of each of the groups in the body politic and economic. Your Lordships will therefore see that the system that I have in mind would be not only representative but also proportional.

In each group, the representative Members could be chosen in whatever way seemed appropriate to the constituent members of that group. This could, if it was thought advisable, be combined with a system of quotas for representatives of political parties chosen by party leaders, with a view to ensuring whatever was thought to be the appropriate balance of party representation in the second House. We could even continue to have a group of independent Cross-Bench Peers, perhaps a little smaller than it is now.

The size of the various quotas would depend on the desired size of the second House. It would be necessary to define the length of terms for which Members would serve. The process could be co-ordinated through an independent statutory appointments commission. Candidates for membership could be recommended to the commission, which could confirm the suitability of candidates recommended to them, perhaps register their political affiliations and ensure a balance of representation from the countries and regions of the United Kingdom within whatever size of House was prescribed.

Such a system would enable the second House to be equipped with a wide range of expertise and experience which would inform the quality of its work and enable it to be effective in bringing forward proposals for legislation as a revising and debating Chamber and in holding government to account.

The second House would therefore be broadly and proportionately representative of the main interests and activities at work in the United Kingdom and in its component parts. It would have a high degree of representative legitimacy, yet it could continue to be ultimately subordinate to the will of the House of Commons, representing the will of the people as established from time to time by universal suffrage.

I urge that the terms of reference of the body-we do not yet know whether that body will be a Cabinet committee, a departmental committee of inquiry, a Joint Committee of the two Houses of Parliament or a royal commission-be drawn up widely enough to allow it to examine the merits and advantages of a system of the kind which I have had time only to adumbrate this afternoon.


Kaihsu Tai
Posted on 1 Jun 2010 12:00 am (Report this annotation)

Functional constituencies are used in Hong Kong and Macau: