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I set up the Commission on Political Power two years ago because our political structures were in such dire straits. This was in the midst of the Boris Johnson debacle and politics was being debased and exploited by a few for personal gain and aggrandisement.
While things may have settled somewhat, the damage is profound and constitutional reform is required. But it is not clear that there is the will or the imagination in any political party to deal with the challenges.
The Commission is a cross-party group of individuals who come together to hear from experts to put together ideas for how things could change. We have published three papers setting out options for reform of the head of state, the executive and the House of Lords.
With a general election on the horizon, it would be logical for the main political parties to start thinking about what kind of reforms they plan to introduce that would reduce corruption, engage citizens, and reform the structures at the heart of government.
It is not happening.
It is worth remembering that when Labour came into power in 1997 it had a fully worked out plan for constitutional reform, all of which has endured and flourished. This comprised devolution and the creation of parliaments in Scotland and Wales, the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and some reform of the Lords.
I am led to believe that Labour’s current plan for constitutional reform will be to allow people to vote in elections on Wednesdays as well as Thursdays. There is no evidence that the Conservatives have any plans at all.
There has been some recent media debate about what to do with the House of Lords, triggered by the publication of the report by former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and by lobbying from Labour’s metro mayors, who want to see their powers enhanced.
The suggestions seem to run on two themes: a directly elected second chamber using some form of proportional representation and/or greater emphasis on regional representation. I don’t think these are the answers.
In my view, the Commission has come up with an alternative structure that is more creative and easier to implement.
The default in most people’s minds is that democracy requires direct election, but as Conservative peer Lord Philip Norton told us during an evidence session, election does not confer wisdom. Nor is direct election the only form of democratic engagement and accountability.
A different vision would be for an appointed chamber that includes people who have been elected from their professional and local constituencies and other people who are selected through a rigorous process based on conspicuous merit.
First, let’s call it a Senate. This would show that it is not a ‘boys’ club’ but a serious legislative body with a job to do.
Then let’s set out what its job is: to uphold and protect the constitution and the rights of citizens; to hold government to account; to review, scrutinise and improve legislation.
The Senate should complement the work of the Commons, not conflict or duplicate. The Lords already conducts post-legislative scrutiny and this should be enhanced as too often laws are passed for political expediency with little accountability for the outcome, cost and consequences.
Getting clarity about the role of a second chamber is the first step; the second stage is deciding how that is best achieved.
The German Parliament includes locally-elected representatives and we are building on this idea to suggest that the elected mayors should sit in the newly created Senate as of right. They could nominate a deputy to sit in their place, as they do currently when they appoint a deputy to take responsibility for overseeing policing for example.
We would also like to see greater representation of local councillors at the heart of government. Local councils have been denuded of power and resources yet are the closest to the people and the most efficient part of government. Placing council leaders on a rotation into the Senate would bring expertise and up-to-date local knowledge into central decision-making.
The inclusion of elected mayors and council leaders provides the regional representation that Gordon Brown and Labour wants to see and is a legitimate way of ensuring democratic representation.
Functional constituencies are an electoral device that would bring up-to-date expertise to the Senate. People from education, trades unions, scientific and professional communities could be elected by their own constituencies. There is no reason why these people should be full-time, but could be seconded from employers. The Commons comprises full-time politicians, a Senate would not have to.
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The scandal of Boris Johnson’s list of cronies to the Lords must not be repeated. Everyone entering the Senate should go through an independent appointments commission, enhanced through statute.
Other changes to the Lords’ composition would be to get rid of the hereditary peers and bishops – while some do currently play a constructive part in the Lords, they are anomalous and hard to justify.
Labour is saying that it will replace the House of Lords in its first term, but has failed to say what that means. The primacy of the Commons will apparently be protected but that will be hard to achieve if the second chamber is directly elected. An elected chamber would replicate the political party system of the Commons, squeezing out the independents and independence, with the whipping system meaning that the second chamber simply be a rubber-stamp for the government.
A Senate needs to add value to our democracy. It should not replicate the failings of today’s system. Radical thinking is needed but we can do that by building on the best of what we have.
Frances Crook is the co-convenor of the Commission on Political Power, and former chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. For more information about the Commission’s work visit commissionpoliticalpower.uk
Hardeep Matharu, the Editor of Byline Times, is an independent researcher for the Commission on Political Power