A New Role for the House of Lords
January 27, 2021
Summary: As part one of our Build Britain Back Better series, we look today at the twin issues of Reform of the House of Lords and decentralising Government in the UK, especially England. The proposal is this; the existing role of the House of Lords as a revising Chamber is handed over to a directly elected Senate which convenes outside of London, we propose in Oxford, shifting the ‘Washington’ element of London to the world of PPE, allowing London to retain a more commercial, New York role. A number of ministries could then be relocated to Birmingham and the Midlands and still be close to ‘government’, while MPs would be encouraged to also be more ‘regional’ in co-ordination with their Senators. Moreover, by having the Senate structured on party lists and regional lines, following the already established procedures and protocols of the European Elections, we have the opportunity to integrate policy making research into the universities and allowing for genuine competition in ideas from diverse and non political think tanks. The proposal is cheap, efficient and more importantly effective. It’s only opposition will come from vested interests, but it is time we overcame these…
Step 1: An Elected Senate, using the existing European Parliament infrastructure
The need to revise the House of Lords is well documented, as it has become little more than a talking shop for semi retired politicians and party donors, but clearly faces significant obstacles – principally from the establishment themselves. As a first step, we would propose a directly elected Senate and in the first instance it could be directly from a list of those currently sat in the lords, just a lot fewer of them. There is actually a very sensible structure for doing this that is already in place, indeed we have just made it redundant, which is the process for Elections to the European Parliament. The process is described here but essentially comprises 12 regions – the nine regions of England plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and MEPs are selected from Party lists, giving a total of 73 MEPs, with the quota for each region reflecting the voting in that region. For the purposes of the reformed House of Lords, or Senate, this could be scaled up to, say, 100 seats, which is what they have in the US. The chart below shows the distribution of seats in the last, 2019, Election to the European Parliament as a sensible starting point.
Chart 1: The existing infrastructure for MEPs could easily be adapted to elect a Senate.
The European Elections already worked on a different Election Cycle to the Commons and for our proposal we would suggest keeping to that fixed 5 year term, with the suggestion of two or at the outside three term limits to prevent the incumbency problems encountered in the US.
Step 2: Relocate Senatorial Government to the Regions of the UK
The next step is to move the Senate itself outside of London, but rather than simply create an alternate ‘centre of power’ we would propose that each of the regional senators is based in the region that elected them and that the Senate itself meets in one central place. We would suggest Oxford, for a number of reasons including history, infrastructure and of course prestige. Rather than build any grand new ‘palace’ in the manner of Holyrood, we would propose re-purposing existing buildings. The administrative side of the Senate for example could be likely accommodated in the suitably grand Clarendon Building with the revising Chamber itself next door in the Sheldonian Theatre.
The Clarendon Building and the Sheldonian would offer suitably ‘Grand’ accommodation.
Alternatively the Crown could simply ‘take over’ a College (St John’s perhaps) and designate it a Royal Palace. Of course people would complain – 720 newly ‘unemployed’ Lords for example and doubtless the academics in Oxford would similarly feel displaced from one or two of their grand buildings, but the payoff for the broader community would surely justify it.
Step 3: Use Regional Universities as Think Tanks for Policy.
One of the bigger problems of Government – cruelly exposed by the Coronavirus policy debacle – is the narrow range of ‘expert opinion’ from which politicians operate. Essentially the Sir Humphreys of the civil service decide on what advice is to be given on account of whom they select to provide it. Under this reform, each Senator would have offices and accommodation at a top University in their region and access to the academics and researchers in a ‘school of government’. It would make sense not to have the University where regional government is already in place, ie Glasgow not Edinburgh, Swansea not Cardiff, but Manchester, Durham, York, Cambridge, Bristol, Warwick, Loughborough and Sussex all spring readily to mind. Plus of course London. As well as the Senators and their staff, the local MPs would all be encouraged to work ‘out of’ the Universities for much of the time rather than rush back to London. This would help solidify the notion of House representatives working together in the interests of their regional electors rather than simply representing narrow party interests at Westminster.
Step 4 Longer Term Competition and Incentives
The existence of Schools of Government would widen the intake for the Political Class, with not only an end to the caricature of the PPE graduate working as a political researcher before becoming an MP at the age of 30 without any experience of the real world, but also would limit the process of politically skewed Think Tanks driving policy. Well researched but competing arguments that take into account regional differences and, crucially, cost benefit analysis make for better government and better policy implementation. They would also empower local media by having higher quality, locally focused content and debate.
The biggest hurdle here is simply Political Will, since the incumbents can see what they will lose more clearly than their successors (and crucially the public) can see what they will win. As such it is inevitable that they will throw up innumerable ‘problems’, Sir Humphrey style. In practical terms however it is relatively simple. The Lords are told that the system previously used for MEPs will forthwith be used for a Senate. Primaries can be held to select party lists. In the first instance the majority of the party lists will come from sitting Lords and Ladies. Crossbenchers are of course allowed to stand as independents, but so would any member of the House of Lords wishing to stand under an independent or ‘new’ party banner. The remaining existing members of the House of Lords will all be given the equivalent of ‘redundancy. The regional Universities are selected and grants allocated to provide suitable research for a School of Government. Space will be provided for regional Senators and local MPs. Any University declaring things ‘too difficult’ will simply be passed over. The exception will be Oxford, where the Crown will effectively take on a long lease at competitive rates on whichever buildings are deemed suitable. Firm but fair.
And that is it. To conclude, we use existing European Parliamentary protocols and procedures to create an elected Senate of 100 people, each representing a region of the UK. They will be based in and around a major University in their region where a school of government will allow for properly funded, non-partisan Think Tanks to inform proper debate on Policy proposals from the commons. MPs will be encouraged to work with their regional Senators to establish greater regional focus for policy and crucially to allow better cost benefit analysis. The Senate itself will convene in Oxford, which is close enough to London, but also far enough away so as to allow for a decentralisation of power. Ironically, now, when power is almost totally centralised may be the very time to do it.
Note. Credit for the genus of the idea and much of the detail is due to Chris Tinker.