Sunday, June 07, 2009

Should We Look To Have An Elected Upper House? - Part 1

Part 1, The 1911 Parliament Act

With a lot of talk of constitutional reform pinging around the world of politics and the blogosphere I thought I would take some time and make the case for an elected second chamber. This needs to begin with a look at the why the Lords has limited its role in the twentieth century, chiefly the 1911 Parliament Act.

There have been advantages to having an unelected second chamber, and there has been some level headed debate and opposition in reining back on big swings of legislation that came from the House of Commons that were unwise and or poorly constructed. This has become the role of this chamber – to be to revise and advice on legislation submitted from the commons. The argument has been that the unelected Peers will not act in a populist manner, and have protected conventions and the Crown. However, that argument is still dependant on the Lower House being prepared to listen to such revision.

The Upper House though has been weakened over hundreds of years, and subervance cemented ever since the 1911 Parliament Act which asserted the supremacy of the House of Commons by limiting the blocking powers of the House of Lords. This act has affected the way this country has been governed ever since and put nearly all control of our affairs in to one House – the elected house. Parliament was designed to operate as a Bicameral Legislature with the executive drawn (and accountable) from within.

The notion and theory behind Bicameral Legislatures has grown over centuries and there are many examples in history and worldwide of legislatures are more agreeable to the people when it’s legislation is enacted upon with the benefit of the pause, second thought and active revision; and I would add split representation. There also tends to be a trend that in Presidential systems, and systems where the executive is separate from the legislature to two chambers of the legislature, these tend to have roughly equal or counter balancing powers between chambers. Whereas Parliamentary systems, where the executive is in the legislature, one chamber tends to have much greater controls and powers that the other.

Originally most power of Parliament and was in the Lords, but over time, with reforms of the electoral system and occasional unrest power has shifted away from the nobles and the majestic to the peasants and common folk, especially since rotten boroughs were eliminated and 19th Century reforms that allowed more and more people the right to vote. In the last century the power has shifted further towards the commons. In this time whenever the Lords has made challenges to the Commons authority it has eventually been beaten, and often subsequently had yet more control taken away so as to not allow it the ability to block. Such measures have tended to be popular at the time as it is held up that the undemocratic House is blocking the democratic part of the Government.

The evolution of the role of the office of Prime Minister and of Cabinet Government had gently nudged power away from the Sovereign and increasingly the cabinet was being drawn from the House of Commons. Only since Pitt had the need for a figurehead co-ordinating cabinet government been recognised and operated in such a manner, but by 1911 because of gradual constitutional reforms and in broad communications methods and with the requirement to solicit a mandate from a much wider electorate it was expected by the public that the leader of the majority in the House of Commons to execute Government policy as mandated via General Election.

The aforementioned 1911 act was a response to events of the previous two years. At the time the Lords was dominated by Conservative Hereditary Peers, but the Commons was in good balance with and the Liberals had tended to return a good number of seats in the Commons. In 1909 the then Liberal chancellor David Lloyd George had proposed a budget which was named the “Peoples Budget.” The headline of this budget was the introduction of the Land Tax which was targeted at wealthy land owners and was an obvious and deliberate attempt at wealth redistribution. However, The Conservatives argued that the budget would be very detrimental to industry and proposed tariffs on imports [Conservatives were promoting protectionist measures to so as to protect their own wealth]. The budget was blocked by the much larger Conservative majority in the House of Lords, a great many of whom were directly affected by the Land taxes.

The Liberals were clearly upset at a financial bill being blocked in the House and were more in touch with public opinion and built upon the unpopularity of the House of Lords in the January 1910 General Election and promised to reduce the powers of the House of Lords. The Election returned a hung Parliament which allowed the Liberal Party to form a minority Government with the Labour Party and the Irish Nationalists. The Lords finally accepted the people’s budget, but despite the recent election victory the Liberals still had to drop the Land Tax to ensure its passage through the Lords.

The Liberals floated proposals to limit the influence from the Lords, which proved very unpopular. So Herbert Henry Asquith took his case to King Edward VII and requested that the King create sufficiently new Liberal peerages to allow his Lords reforms to be passed. The King refused and the Lords voted down the 1910 reform bill.

Asquith did not relent. King Edward VII died in May 1910, and George V agreed that if an electoral mandate was achieved and the Lords attempted to block again he would create hundreds of Liberal Peers to neutralise the Conservatives in the Lords. So Asquith went to the country again, and won, and was able to secure his mandate and formed another minority government.

It was still a tight vote but the 1911 Parliament Act was eventually passed which secured the supremacy of the House of Commons. The provisions under the act prevented the Lords from blocking any public legislation approved by the House of Commons and imposed a maximum of one month delay on any money bill (where taxation is concerned) and a maximum blocking time of two years on any other bill. The Commons Speaker was empowered to designate what bills were Money Bills, and if the block had not been resolved within that month the bill could be sent for Royal Assent without approval from the Lords. On other bills, the Lords could only be circumvented if a Bill passed the Commons three times, though there was a required lapse of two years between second and third readings. [Blocking power was further restricted in the 1949 Parliament Act]

The Lords retained the power to veto a bill in the 1911 Bill that prolonged the life of a Parliament, however the Septennial Act 1715 was officially amended so as to restrict the maximum length of a Parliament from 7 years to 5 years. The Lords also retained the nominal power to veto any bill that originated from the House of Lords and also on any bill that attempts to extend the length of a Parliament.
However, this whole act and tipping of power was enacted as a temporary Bill with this very key preamble:

Whereas it is intended to substitute the House of Lords as it presently exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.

So the 1911 Parliament act, which is intended to allow a majority Commons force enact legislation as a temporary measure until the House could be reformed soon after with an elected chamber. This means that 98 years ago, it was agreed by the Lords to do away with hereditary peers.

So why have we not progressed to an elected Lords in the last 98 years? I don’t know, but it is clear that with the reduced power in the Lords, and with the power at hand to the lower house to amend by act of Parliament the Upper House we have, to an extent adopted a unicameral Parliament. This has largely suited the Governing Parties of the last 100 years, but has slowly taken away the some of the required checks and balances that protects a nation’s population and makes effective the legislation possible. Sure the Lords is able to offer some control and advise in terms of revising laws, but it has no real powers over the Government or the House of Commons.

If there was an elected Upper House, with its own elected mandate, legislative equality could be restored to Parliament, and the balance of power and potentially the way the cabinet functions would need to be addressed. There is the potential to have checks and balances put in place that would represent and defend people. I have some ideas for this and will share them at a later time.

I should also say that the reasoning behind much of the reforms I have read about I think I would have backed at the time, as each was based upon strengthening the power to those elected and ensuring passage of popular law. However, the chief failures of Parliament today stem from a centralisation of power. Instead of centralising power, I think we should look to widening and expanding the elected part of Government, so that power can be more evenly distributed - though not by extending an all ready over packed House of Commons but by reforming the second chamber that can hold the Commons to account.

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