Sunday 1 July 2012

Reform the House of Commons before the House of Lords

There can be no doubt that the UK needs constitutional reform. But the most urgent changes that are needed concern the House of Commons, not the House of Lords.
For too long parliamentary democracy has been usurped by a powerful executive backed by party whips. The government can impose its will on backbench MPs - essentially stifling any meaningful debate. All too often, the government of the day uses the 'guillotine' to prevent a full debate in order to push through its own rushed agenda. Backbench MPs can rebel against their party leadership, but this would almost certainly end their parliamentary careers and could even lead to deselection.
Legislation is often hurried through the Commons without being fully debated. Where the legislation is badly drafted (as is often the case) unforeseen consequences may arise that have not been properly considered by our elected representatives.
The House of Lords, although unelected, can scrutinise the proposed legislation in a more orderly fashion, and if necessary propose amendments. These amendments can be accepted or rejected by the House of Commons, but in reality this process often helps to improve the bill which MPs have not properly considered.
Is there a case for an elected Second Chamber to replace the House of Lords? Certainly an argument can be made. But if the second chamber is to be elected, it must also have more power. It must be able to challenge the House of Commons as an equal partner. Currently, the House of Commons always has the final say.  If the House of Lords does not accept a piece of legislation, the Government can invoke the Parliament Act to force it through.
The use of the Parliament Act to over-rule an elected Second Chamber would obviously be unacceptable. Yet, this is exactly what is being proposed by Nick Clegg’s ill-considered ‘reform’ of the House of Lords.
Furthermore, Clegg wants members of the second chamber to be elected for a 15 year term, which would be non-renewable. 15 years?! This means once elected, there would be no way for voters to get rid of the person - effectively making them unaccountable to the electorate. Even by Clegg’s standards, this must rank as one of the most stupid ideas ever put forward in the name of constitutional reform.
Clegg also wants members of the Second Chamber to be elected from party lists - a form of ‘proportional representation’ already roundly rejected by the people in a referendum last year.
Given voter apathy in general elections when selecting MPs, why should we expect people to turn out to vote for members of a second chamber who will not have any power - and who cannot be got rid of for 15 years?
Reform is needed, but it is the House of Commons that most urgently needs to change. The London Bugle makes the following recommendations:

  • The use of the ‘guillotine’ must be outlawed. Legislation should not be passed by the Commons until it has been properly debated clause by clause, line by line. If this means the government needs to slow down its legislative programme, then so be it! It would be better to have fewer laws that are properly considered than lots of badly drafted legislation passed without adequate debate.
  • Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote on any legislation that does not directly affect their own Scottish constituencies. Scotland has its own Parliament, but thanks to Labour’s botched one-sided devolution, England is now at a democratic disadvantage within the Union.
  • If MPs promise something in their election manifestos but then willfully break their promise after being elected, the constituencies should have power to recall their MP and demand an explanation. If constituency members are not happy with the explanation, they should have the power to dismiss the MP and trigger a by-election. This might help MPs to remember why they were elected in the first place. They are there to ‘serve’, not to ‘rule’.

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