James Prentice proposes a different vision for House of Lords reform and regional devolution to that of the Brown Report.
Labour’s Commission on the UK’s Future outlined the party’s plans to create regional representation at national level by replacing the House of Lords with an elected ‘assembly of nations and regions’. . There is limited detail to these initial plans, but we have key information. Regional governors would be elected and serve different term lengths to that of MPs. They would likely be elected under clearly defined regions under a proportional system. Representatives’ primary role would be to give a voice to the various regions of the UK. These officials would be there to scrutinise legislation and would have amending powers, but would not be able to reject legislation. They would also be there to monitor standards in public life. The House of Commons would remain the stronger chamber, but the second chamber will have more legitimacy in its actions. This is considerably better than what we have now. Yet, the question must be asked: will a directly elected second chamber produce the best possible revising chamber or does the House of Lords need a different kind of reform?
Given greater devolution is required, why reconsider these proposals?
The primary reason to rethink this proposal is that it risks recreating similar problems we have now, but with democratic legitimacy behind them. One problem with the House of Lords is that it is increasingly party-politically controlled and that this control over the Lords causes lower levels of scrutiny due to political parties seeking to force their legislation through the process as quickly as possible. Yet, if we elect members on a party political platform at a regional level then these members will have party loyalties which may cause them to follow party lines ahead of much-needed legislation scrutiny functions. Currently, Lords are appointed for life and, therefore, do not have to fear the repercussions of refusing to follow the whip. Yet, electing members in party political elections would mean they would be required to keep the whip on-side if they desired re-election or a climb in seniority. Therefore, potentially this could result in lower quality scrutiny than currently exists, but with far more restricted ability to reform the system.
Secondly, the assumption that electing officials based on regional location will better shape legislation in ways that reflect people across the UK is problematic. MPs represent clear localities and will fight for their seats, but as party politics takes over quite often decisions are taken along party lines rather than what is best for individual constituencies. Regional government may suffer from the same problem. Also, regional identity is not always clear, meaning the ability to represent such interests might not be as easy as at a constituency level.
Thirdly, another issue could arise around competing mandates. Electing a second chamber at different intervals to the first chamber could create the American congress problem where different chambers reflect different election results, resulting in chambers having different mandates and problems of stalemate occurring for party political reasons rather than legislative scrutiny reasons. This could erode the current advantage of our system, that of being able to legislate and act quickly when required.
A better way to reform the House of Lords?
We can reform the House of Lords and avoid these potential problems, keep its current benefits and give much-needed devolution. The answer is to devolve power to regional governments separately from reforming the House of Lords.
Regional government could be there to decide on newly devolved matters. For instance, each region could be allocated part of a given infrastructure budget and officials would then decide which proposed projects to invest in. This would help better direct funding to infrastructure projects that would connect deprived areas to regional economic hubs, thus helping to address UK productivity problems. Another power that could be devolved is NHS service management.
Separately, the House of Lords could be reformed by removing political appointments and replaced with appointed or elected recognised experts in every field parliament legislates on. For example, experienced high-ranking civil servants could help scrutinise proposed civil-service reforms. This would bring much-needed removal of party politics from legislative scrutiny and improve the quality of amendments as members would be bringing vital expertise that could make government legislation more effective. These members would also be able to add detail they believe the government has overlooked and close loopholes in legislation. Further, they could also suggest policies on overlooked areas governments do not have time, or do not want, to deal with. The government could then either accept or reject this proposed legislation to ensure any policy suggestions had democratic legitimacy. Vitally, this function could increase the number of policy areas government can address, thus increasing government effectiveness.
In conclusion, both regional government and House of Lords reform are necessary, but to be done effectively they should be implemented separately.