The Times view on proposals to reform the House of Lords

New constitutional approaches are needed to better represent regional areas

22 April 2019

Murdo Fraser is not the first politician to propose reforming the House of Lords in an attempt to make it more representative of a changing union. The MSP, who is also the Conservative Party’s finance spokesman at Holyrood, suggests replacing the present unwieldy and sometimes sclerotic body with a regionally elected senate.

In this he is echoing proposals put forward by Lord Steel who has argued that there is a case for a body that reflects the way that devolution has changed Britain over the past 20 years. He wants to see a combination of elected and appointed members who would better reflect the regional areas of the UK.

Mr Fraser believes that the transfer of extensive new powers to the Scottish parliament has meant that Britain is becoming a “quasi-federal” state, and unless parliament changes to reflect that, moves towards independence will gather pace. “A failure to change may make the pressures pushing our four nations apart irresistible,” he writes.

There is much to be said for this argument but it must also be considered in the light of reforms needed at Holyrood. It may be that a reformed House of Lords should go hand in hand with ideas for a revising chamber at the Scottish parliament, where the role of its committees, both as revising bodies and independent challengers to the power of the administration, has manifestly failed.

The committees have all too often elected conveners who simply represent the government’s views, and the serious review of legislation does not take place with the scrutiny and transparency that the role demands.

In February Jack McConnell, the former first minister, told The Times that if the volume of legislation increased again after Brexit there might be a case for “building something into the system that provides more challenge to the Scottish government”.

He said that he had never been convinced by arguments for an elected second chamber, but that there might be a case for introducing a civic assembly of some kind: a representative, grassroots-based consultative body that parliament would be forced to include in the process before final decision-making on legislation. It could also be involved in budgets, he suggested. Mr Fraser’s approach is dictated less by the need for more revision, more as a means of reflecting an ever-changing union, but his solution may prompt wider consideration.

A new senate would represent different parts of the UK and would replace the Lords in providing oversight of legislation. It would, he said, fulfil the role both of a revising chamber and as a counterweight to the House of Commons, and would, in his words “protect the interests of the nations and regions furthest from London”.

His arguments appear to be gaining traction within the UK party, certainly among Tory thinkers who concede that a bloated House of Lords is at odds with modern democracy. There are at present 782 sitting members, making it the world’s second largest legislature after China’s National People’s Congress.

Meanwhile, the case for reforms north of the border are also gaining ground. When and if the Brexit argument is resolved, the case for new constitutional approaches should be considered as a matter of urgency. It is not only the House of Lords that badly needs reform.

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