Sunday, April 30, 2006

Debating the House of Lords

Yesterday I was chief adjudicator for the Bristol Open. Only a small tournament but it had some first class speakers which made it a great experience for a judge. It was a lot of fun and gave me the luxury of setting motions which I knew I would see discussed in full. The motions set were the following:
  1. This house would drop the requirement for neutrality in private television.
  2. This house would introduce compulsory fat camp for obese children during the school summer holidays.
  3. This house would assassinate Mugabe.
  4. This house would make the House of Lords 100% elected with life terms.
Final. This house would admit temporary guest workers.

The competition was won by Matthew Kirk and Danny Riley. Congratulations to both.

Seeing the idea I put forward a month or so back on this blog for reforming the House of Lords debated was very interesting. Essentially the idea is to balance the House of Commons, which has all the advantages and disadvantages of being extremely accountable, with a body which is utterly unaccountable in order to avoid problems of pork and majoritarian stamping on civil liberties. That and the discussion I had with Dave Cole on the original thread suggest to me that the following are the biggest criticisms of the plan, none of which seem critical:
  1. It would remove the bishops. If a bishop really wants to run for this position then they are not prevented from doing so but I do not think that, with Church of England attendances so low, they deserve special treatment.
  2. It would remove the 'experts'. When electing a politician with limited powers, they would still only be able to temporarily block the Commons, and a long stay in office I think that people might be more inclined to favour less presentational candidates. Even if this isn't the case I think that the term expert is extremely subjective and they are rare enough in the Lords that democratic will should prevail.
  3. It would remove the Law Lords. I agree that this is an issue and I would suggest that as there are very few of them they could be tacked onto the system; i.e. 99% elected for life, 1% Law Lords.
  4. We might elect an utter lunatic (Galloway or the BNP) and wouldn't be able to get rid of them. Individual mistakes are one in over six hundred Lords and the errors of each generation would have a limited effect on the parliament thanks to the glacial rate of change.
  5. It would make the parties more powerful. I would actually think that those who needed to be elected once would be less dependent upon parties than those who were entirely appointed by the parties or who required regular re-election.
  6. The Lords do no work when unnaccountable. Other bodies without re-election like the Supreme Court in the US can hardly be accussed of slacking. The reason for the current low turnout in the Lords would seem to be that many of them never ran for election and wanted a legislative role but were given it as an honour.
  7. There would be a gridlock/a challenge to the primacy of the House of Commons. First, there clearly needs to be more of a challenge to the executive than there is now where there is very little to prevent rampant intrusions on civil liberties. Second, the change is limited as the Lords power itself is limited by current devices like the Parliament Act.
  8. Without accountability we lose one of the great assets of democracy in our ability to select for good leaders over time. We would retain the House of Commons that will remain accountable to popular views of the moment. Having another, less powerful, body not governing at the whim of the majority would seem a valuable safeguard.
One of the best arguments in the debate was raised in a Point Of Information supporting the motion which asked how this was different to a president in his second term. The answer was that such a president would generally want to secure a legacy and ensure that his party did well in future; of course both these objectives could also be true of the Lords and this provides a sound reason why the system would not produce a lazy or idiotic chamber. The difference to a president in his second term is that there would be no certain end date for them and, as such, they would not lose influence as a President does once people know he will soon no longer be a fount of patronage.

I think that my plan stood up well.


Anonymous said...

Two of the biggest challenges from the Lords have been over Tuition fees and Hunting. How do they represent a 'gross intrusion into civil liberties'?

Mr Eugenides said...

Is Matt Kirk still alive? he must be about 40.