What do you consider to be the proper functions of a second chamber in the constitution of this country? Does the House of Lords, as now constituted, effectively discharge these functions? If not, what reforms would you introduce? The United Kingdom has a bicameral system, meaning there are two parliamentary chambers. In the United Kingdom the first chamber is known as the House of Commons and the second chamber the House of Lords. The second Chamber has several proper functions; it has a scrutiny function, a constitutional watchdog function, and a representative function.
It is often debated as to whether the House of Lords effectively discharges these functions, and if any reforms would allow it to work as a better second chamber. Although I believe it fulfils some of its functions, there are several reforms which could be introduced to ensure that these functions are more effectively discharged. The Second chamber could be a mixed house with a majority election, and as this would give it democratic legitimacy due to its elected members, it could then have the power of veto reintroduced.
An important function of the second chamber is to revise and scrutinise legislation. It will often revise legislation, looking at the wording of draft bills and their workability. This is the area that I believe the House of Lords excels in. It has such vast numbers, and many of its members are experts in their fields, hence the reason they have been chosen to be part of the House of Lords. The House of Lords also spend a lot of time scrutinising the details of bills, with a line by line approach, ensuring they do not miss any wording which would affect the workability of a bill.
Although the work may not be accepted by the House of Commons, the House of Lords fulfils its function thoroughly scrutinises legislation and often suggests amendments which could be made. The Doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty gives the executive extensive power; therefore it is essential that Parliament keep check on the government. One of the second chamber’s functions is to act as this constitutional watchdog. While reviewing legislation the second chamber will often pay particular attention as to whether bills are constitutional and comply with previous Human Rights legislation.
In some ways the House of Lords is able to act as a constitutional watchdog. The constitutional committee for instance examines all bills which may have constitutional importance. The committee is able to create a report on bills and to deliver these to the House. However the House of Lords has very little power in actually ensuring the bills are amended. The report acts as guidance and gives recommendations, but the House of Commons can use this guide as they wish. The Parliamentary Acts of 1911 and 1949 mean that bills can be passed without being approved by the House of Lords.
Therefore if the House of Commons disagree with the recommendations given in the report or the amendments made by the House of Lords, after a period of time they can receive royal assent. Another function of the second chamber is to be representative. A second chamber provides a forum for debate and discussion, often relating to matters of public interest. It is important that in these discussions and debates the chamber provides a representative view of different opinions from the regions.
The second chamber may have a different composition of interests to the first house, allowing Parliament to ensure a wide range of people are represented in either of the two houses. This also means that the House of Lords may have different opinions on the legislation; enabling legislation to be considered by a wider range of people. However with regards to representation the House of Lords has the ability to improve considerably. Although it does represent faith through the Bishops and Archbishops (the Lords spirituals), the main faith to be represented is the Church of England.
Other members may be elected as life peers; however there are no special positions for members of other faiths. The House of Lords is also predominately male, with only 22% of its member’s female. It is difficult to describe the House of Lords as representative when they favour a particular religion and do not have a good gender balance. If the Second Chamber is to be representative, then it is often argued that it should be elected. The House itself directly affects political legislation and can make severe amendments to Draft Bills.
As a democracy it is essential that a second chamber which affects political power so directly has the legitimacy which stems from elections. This would allow citizens of the United Kingdom to feel they have a true representation of their views in the House of Lords. This is another one of the major area’s that the House of Lords does not fulfil its function as it has no elected member’s and therefore I consider it undemocratic to have an unelected House of Lords.
A reform which I would introduce to the House of Lords to ensure it fulfils all its functions is a mixed house with majority elected members. To explain the reasons for having a mixed house, it is firstly important, to explain why the two extremes (a wholly elected house, or a wholly appointed house) do not allow the House of Lords to fulfil all of their functions. A wholly elected house could potentially become a second House of Commons, as it could lose its independence from political parties. There could be two major problems with this.
The House could have different proportions of party aligned member’s to the House of Commons. This could create a situation in which both houses play off against each other potentially leading to legislative gridlock, or continuous delaying of legislature. On the other hand the House could be almost a clone of the House of Commons, which would limit its ability to scrutinise legislation. It could also greatly affect the expertise of the House of Lords, as currently members are appointed due to their expertise in their given field.
However if members were elected it could not be guaranteed that the people selected would have the right expertise. A wholly appointed house, on the other hand, would also pose a major problem. It would mean the house lacked democratic legitimacy, and due to this it is given a less prominent voice in the decision making process. Therefore I believe the correct reform would be to have a mixed house. I would propose 60 per cent of members to be elected and 40 per cent to be appointed.
If 60 per cent of the members were elected then the House of Lords could be considered a house which has a majority of elected members, but it would also ensure that the house of Lords still remained free of the pressures from political parties, it would also ensure that the member’s had the right expertise needed to scrutinise in detail bills which are passed to the House of Lords. It would also be important to have a party balance, with at least 20% of its members being independent from any party. This would ensure it had a different make up to the House of Commons, but too extreme that legislation kept being delayed.
To discharge the function as a constitutional watchdog, the House of Lord’s would need to have an enhanced role in protecting the constitution with more special powers. One of the main reasons that the Parliamentary Acts removed the vetoing powers of the House of Lords was that the House of Lord’s lacked democratic legitimacy. If the previous reform of a majority elected chamber was introduced, then the House of Lords would have far greater democratic legitimacy. In my opinion it should therefore be entitled to veto legislation which is considered unconstitutional or against human rights.
To conclude, I have considered three main functions of the House of Lords. They scrutinise legislation, ensuring it has the correct terminology. This function is discharged very well in the House of Lords, due to its high levels of expertise. They act as a constitutional watchdog by debating issues and policies and questioning government. Although they do have a constitutional committee, their inability to veto legislation means that they do not have much power as to keep a check on the government.
They represent the regions and people; but as they are unelected it is questionable if they truly represent the population. I proposed two main reforms; a majority elected house, and the reintroduction of vetoing power. The majority elected house would ensure that the House was considered representative, while maintaining a house which has a wide range of expertise. The reintroduction of vetoing power, would give them the ability to stop legislation, allowing them to discharge their function as a constitutional watchdog.