Second House: Replacing the House of Lords

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Chris Napier

There are around four hundred actual seats in the House of Lords, yet as David Cameron hands out a batch of new peerages there are now in excess of 800 eligible members. This makes the House of Lords as the second largest parliamentary chamber in the world and the only upper house in a bicameral parliament which is larger than it’s respective lower house, and throws fuel on the fire of the enduring campaign to press for reform of the UK’s upper chamber.

I believe that the House of Lords is a bloated, undemocratic and expensive anachronism which attaches the government of the UK to an age of aristocratic privilege which belongs in the history books and acts as a block on the UK becoming a true democracy.

In this article, I intend to set out a blueprint of an institution to replace the House of Lords (or act as a second house to the Scottish parliament in the event of Scottish independence) which addresses the criticisms that the Lords is expensive, distant and undemocratic while performing a crucial role in acting as a check on the power of Westminster (or Holyrood) as well as further constitutional duties.

A New House

As a direct link to the UK’s feudal past, I believe that the House of Lords should be abolished with the building itself either converted into dormitories for MPs sitting in the Commons (removing the supposed need for ‘second homes’) and/or turned into a museum, which could generate income which could finance some of the costs of running parliament.

The new institution, which I will tentatively call a Senate as this is one of the most common names applied to an upper house around the world* would be a wholly new body, with new powers and a wholly new relationship with the UK parliament, reflecting the changed needs of the country in the 180 or so years since the current parliamentary balance was established.

* In suggesting the name of Senate, I acknowledge this might not be the best title due to the devolved Welsh assembly technically being called a Senate (or Senedd in Welsh) and the republican connotations of the word and widespread usage abroad may make the name distasteful to some.

Role

The House of Lords’ powers have been diminished over the years as it is only able to delay a parliamentary bill for a limited time and cannot interfere with a budget. With the Senate being elected and more directly accountable to the population, I feel it would be prudent to increase it’s powers to make it a meaningful balance to the House of Commons (or Holyrood in the case of an independent Scotland.)

However, the lower house would remain the more powerful house, responsible for initiating legislation and with government ministers expected to be drawn from the ranks of MPs/MSPs.

The role of the Senate would be to approve legislation, while sending unacceptable bills back to the House of Commons with recommendations for amendments. The Senate would also be able to propose legislation to be debated in the House of Commons and also to rule on constitutional* matters, being able to veto bills it deemed to be unconstitutional or against the interests of the country. The Senate would also be able to calla referendum on any issue they deemed to be suitably important and would act as a court of appeal on any issues of parliamentary discipline.

* Of course, this is dependent on there actually being a written constitution for the UK or Scotland, but I would argue that this would be a very desirable thing to have.

Candidacy

As party politics is one of the less appealing parts of the political landscape anywhere, with individual MPs often having more loyalty towards their party and it’s donors rather than their constituents, it would be a refreshing change for the upper house to be devoid of such divisions.

As such, prospective Senators would not be allowed to be a member of a political party or have been politically active (as an office bearer or candidate for a party) for at least a decade prior to their election. Of course, charity workers, union representatives etc. do not count as politically active.

Furthermore, to avoid the potential bias of big business or individually wealthy candidates, prospective Senators would have a strict campaign budget, but would receive a taxpayer funded freepost similar to that which is given to prospective MPs, as well as mandated coverage on regional television via the BBC.

In my mind, the Senate would ideally be composed of people with experience in a wide variety of real world roles, with academics, charity workers, businesspeople and so on all represented but I can’t think of a way to proactively make this happen.

Election

The Senate would be wholly elected with candidates standing in a single electoral region and the top candidates would be elected via single transferable vote (STV.)

The specifics of electoral regions etc. would depend on whether we were talking about a UK or Scottish Senate, so I’ll deal with each example differently.

For the UK, I would use the electoral regions and number of representatives as used for the European elections, giving a total of 73 senators elected from the twelve regions.

For Scotland, I would use the eight electoral regions used for the Scottish parliament elections, each returning three representatives, giving a total of twenty four senators.

Senators would serve for a four year term and being barred from serving more than three terms, with elections offset from the main parliamentary elections to avoid confusion between the elections.

Location

The expense of building a wholly new Senate building and the inevitable bunfight about where to situate it are evident problems with the creation of a new institution. However, this can be countered in a way which also makes the Senate more accessible, inclusive and representative of the nation. Send it on tour.

The Senate would exist as a legislative body composed of its members, not tied to any particular building. The Senate would meet in locations across the country, rotating between electoral regions on a monthly basis, thereby ensuring that the Senate is in your part of the country at least one month a year, with the public able to view debates and so on.

Of course, the expenses accrued in travel and accommodation for senators and staff (both senator’s aides and the administrative staff of the institution) would be considerable, but given the restricted number of senators, this is still likely to be less than the running expenses of the House of Lords as it stands.

In practical terms, this means that the Senate would meet two days a week, while Senators would be expected to work in their home regions three days a week, holding surgeries, meeting constituents and working from their home office.

Remuneration

Being a full-time job which is intended to attract ordinary people, rather than simply the wealthy or a professional politician, I propose that the wage for Senators be fixed as twice the average UK wage – at the moment amounting to a wage of around £55’000. This wage is sufficient to reflect the level of responsibility implicit in the role and discourage corruption (as power without proportional remuneration will inevitably lead to corruption) while not being so generous as to attract those who could earn more as a CEO.

Senators would also receive expenses for travel between their residence and where senate is being held, plus an allowance for an office and staff.

Senators would be barred from holding any other business interest while in office* or from accepting any ‘figurehead’ roles with companies after their term. If they insist on profiteering, they can write a book…

* If they are business owners when elected, they would be allowed to continue as owner but only in a non-executive capacity, handing the running of the company over for the duration.

Accountability

Any senator or prospective Senator found to be claiming fraudulent expenses, favouring business interests or similar will be immediately stripped of their position and a by-election process started.

There would also be a recall procedure similar to the proposed Recall of MPs act, whereby electors would be able to recall a Senator if a sufficient number lodged their name against the motion to do so.

Obviously, many of these suggestions are in very broad strokes and reflect my personal preferences but the purpose of the article is largely to show that the way things are and have been done in British (or Scottish) politics does not have to endure.

By challenging the institutions and forms of our governance and having an open debate about what kind of country we want to live in and how we wish to be governed, positive change can move from seeming an impossible dream to something which seems logical, natural and inevitable.

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E-petitions: promoting slacktivism or participation?

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Louise Wilson

Of the many changes this new UK Government has made, or announced it will make, so far, perhaps one of the more positive aspects is the establishment on a new Petitions Committee and system.

Whilst the ability to petition Parliament has been around for decades, in July this year a system to allow e-petitioning was launched. Any UK citizen can now open, sign and publicise a petition online, which will be registered on the UK Parliament website immediately. This differentiates it from other websites, such as change.org, as it does not require petitioners to physically deliver their document.

So Westminster has now caught up with the Scottish Parliament, and it is a positive step in terms of modernising many of the institution’s archaic traditions. This is a turn for the democratic – with much of Britain now online, it makes sense to allow the electorate to engage with the Government and Parliament in this space too.

This new e-system is not without its criticisms, however, By making the process more open, it automatically means it is easier to garner support for, shall we say, less serious petitions. With only 10,000 signatures, the government must issue a response to any petition. This will take up resources, and whilst we can hope only worthy petitions would reach this threshold, other countries’ experiences have shown this isn’t always the case.

Take for instance the petition in the US to build a Death Star back in 2013. It received over 34,000 signatures, therefore requiring an official response. Whilst the US Government successfully turn this into some positive PR, it is easy to imagine other scenarios in which petitions are simply wasting Government time. And even those that do not reach 10,000 have to be considered by the new Petitions Committee – potentially detracting from more serious issues.

The ease with which a petition can be created and signed may also encourage a rise in slacktivism and clicktivism. By e-signing a petition, a person may believe they have played their part and so no further action is required. This train of thought has pervaded much of the research undertaken by academics in internet and politics for some time. There is a fear that people will trade in physical, pro-active campaigning for a few clicks or a button. After all, it is far easier to do without feeling like you’ve done nothing – but it is also far less effective a method of advocacy. Arguably, the same could be said for traditional petitions, but the difference is that many of us still separate online presence from IRL. We might put less thought into signing something over the internet than we would with pen and paper.

Despite the issues, e-petitioning could still prove to be a very useful resource. It opens up the conversation, and by allowing information to be shared via social media, might encourage participation. Studies have suggested that we are more likely to engage with something a friend has posted online than from another source (albeit the online friend must also be an IRL friend, according to these same studies).

And while the occasional daft petition might come up, so might a stroke of genius. For example, among a list of Holyrood petitions deemed successful, one can find: reinstalling a railway to the Borders, clarifying grant guidelines for Historic Scotland, and protecting Wemyss Ancient Caves. Petitions can also trigger action from governments before they are officially taken forward – usually recognisably by a withdrawal.

This move online ought to be celebrated. At the very least, all petitions will receive some consideration by the Committee, and at best might trigger a debate, and real, tangible change. It is a step forward for both modernisation and democracy in an institution that holds old values dear and is often accused of not listening to the public between elections.

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If you like what you read please check out some of our other articles and if you don’t like what you read please give your own perspective and contribute! As a new venture we are always looking for talented writers with something to say about Scots politics and culture and if you have never written before, give it a try. Please contact scotsperspective@gmail.com or message our Facebook page.

The Value of Opposition

parliament

Chris Napier

It goes without saying that most of the attention paid to parliament tends to be concentrated on the party (or coalition) in power because they are the ones capable of getting things done, changing laws, changing lives and in theory representing the majority of the nation’s voters.

However, like many things which are not appreciated until they are gone, the value of a functional opposition in a parliamentary democracy is often overlooked.

Parliament is not supposed to merely rubber stamp government policies but to dynamically debate, refine and reform them before being enacted into legislation by a vote.

A strong opposition can pressure a government into changing or at least mitigating their policy, they can press the government on details which expose unwelcome facets of their legislation and they can offer a genuine alternative to the populace, making elections a vital process by which the general public can choose between distinct political ideologies.

On the other hand, a weak opposition effectively leaves the government with free reign to do whatever they like, fails to pick holes in dubious legislation and reduces elections to a formality which results in voter disengagement, low turnout and a degradation of the whole concept of representative democracy.

In both the UK and Scottish parliaments, Labour are the second largest party and thus form the backbone of what should be the opposition* but the party’s inability to process the reasons for their fall from government over the last eight years, their ongoing leadership turmoil and seeming loss of identity has left them unable to perform that task.

* Indeed in Westminster, the Labour leader is the formal Leader of the Opposition, while Holyrood’s less adversarial format means that no such official analogue exists in the Scottish lexicon.

In both parliaments, Labour stand too close to the party in government, not wanting to seem too different lest they be deemed ‘unelectable’ while attempting to distinguish themselves from their opponents on evidently disingenuous ideological terms.

In Westminster, Labour feel they cannot oppose the right wing austerity agenda lest they be seen as economically irresponsible – effectively accepting the Conservative narrative rather than challenging it and offering an alternative. Since long before the recent general election they have repeatedly voted with the government or abstained on major votes, effectively negating their worth as an opposition – and in my eyes, making themselves unelectable in the process. After all, if you want a neoliberal, corporate sponsored government, why would you vote for the equivocating, vanilla version when the full throated Conservative version was right there?

In Holyrood, Labour suffer from being diametrically opposed to the SNP on one issue (independence), at odds on a few issues (notably how to deal with the ongoing financial crisis & austerity) and on most others, their manifestos could be copied and pasted from one another. This leaves them unable to tackle the SNP on most policy areas as they would not suggest wildly different approaches, they cannot wholeheartedly campaign for austerity knowing the mood of the Scottish electorate and are left picking at the edges and harping on about the SNP’s obsession with independence.

This leaves the SNP, with only 56 MPs to the Conservatives 330 as the main functional opposition in Westminster and they have set about doing their best despite the 6-1 odds (which are even worse when you consider that Labour, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the DUP are as likely to vote with the Conservatives as oppose them.)

What makes this even more frustrating is that the majorities enjoyed by the governing parties in the both parliaments are laughably small, meaning that a strong opposition would be ideally placed to affect government policy and take advantage of any dissension in the government ranks.

It is necessary in the name of democracy that the Conservatives and SNP are confronted by a strong opposition in both parliaments, either by Labour rediscovering their principles or by increased representation at the next election for parties who are actually willing to provide that opposition.

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If you like what you read please check out some of our other articles and if you don’t like what you read please give your own perspective and contribute! As a new venture we are always looking for talented writers with something to say about Scots politics and culture and if you have never written before, give it a try. Please contact scotsperspective@gmail.com or message our Facebook page.