Friday 28 August 2015

On effective scrutiny

The House of Lords is back in the news with the latest round of appointments going mainly to the electoral rejects of the political classes. It is widely agreed that the appointment system is untenable due to the unrepresentative nature of the second chamber and its ridiculous size. What is more difficult to say is what should take its place.

Electing the second chamber has its supporters but I would argue that adding simply a second elected chamber to the first one would only reduce parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, the only thing the current second chamber is still doing well (research shows that the House of Lords has been more rebellious since 2010 than it has ever been in its history).

Moreover, the argument over scrutiny has another side. Scrutiny by parliamentarians is informed by their position in society and who they represent. This is the essence of representation and creates the balance of interests in society. To make the second chamber mirror the first chamber would align the House of Lords with the House of Commons, and in effect, align it with the will of the government.

Looking at other examples of second chambers this point becomes a bit clearer. The German Bundesrat (the second chamber) works well because it represents the interests of the Laender (the German States and Free Cities). The interests of the (elected) deputies of the Bundesrat are hence different to the elected parliamentarians sitting in the Bundestag (the first chamber).

The effect is that, where the interests of the Laender are concerned, the Bundesrat offers an effective opposition, scrutinising national legislation and counter-balancing the will of the national government.

Hence, an elected House of Lord along the electoral lines of the House of Commons would only create a mirror image of the latter, removing the counter-balancing function of any second chamber through its representative function for different interests to those of the political parties.

Reforming the House of Lords within the only partially federal system of the UK may hence be trickier than thought. Perhaps that's the reason that the House has been one of the most reform-resistant pieces of political architecture in this country.

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