Successive governments have fluffed reform of the House of Lords. Second only to the Chinese National People’s Congress, our bloated, unelected menagerie of public servants, notable specialists, freeloaders and Bishops sat 149 times last session, with an average attendance of near 500 Lords each sitting day.
This is not to do down the work of the Lords. The majority of the Lords perform a vital constitutional task within our bicameral system, working to apply their often-immense knowledge of given subjects to scrutinise and better government policy.
But it might be worth looking at other democracies and seeing how they operate their second house, and with that we might be able to shine a light on how to solve another problem:
How in our increasingly locally focused system of government, can local government ensure that they are not simply administrators for what can often be a disinterested at worst, well intentioned at best national government in Westminster?
In practical terms alone there is a certain neatness, with 418 local authorities in the UK to 400 seats in the House of Lords. A system where authorities could return representatives would, at the least, eliminate the nightmarish scenario where the over 800 peers who have the right to sit in the House turn up.
But more seriously, a method whereby local authorities have a role in returning representatives to one of the houses in a bicameral system is in full and successful use elsewhere.
We don’t have to go far to find examples, the French Senate is made up in large part by delegates as appointed by Councillors, the German Bundesrat is made up of delegates appointed by the state governments, the upper house in India, the Rajya Sabha, is elected indirectly by Indian state and territorial legislatures.
As an example of practical solutions, the UK ought to probably learn from in the event of deadlock between the two houses on a vote, the Rajya Sabha sits in joint session with the Lok Sabha (the House of the people) and they vote on matters together – but the Lok Sabha has twice as many members.
We can go on, the Prostesphea of Cambodia is largely made up of Senators elected by Councillors from its 24 provinces, the Dewan Negara of Malaysia, the House of Federation in Ethiopia, the National Council of Provinces in South Africa, the Senate of the Netherlands, the list really can go on for quite some time.
There’s a valid question to ask, why do we in the UK persist with tinkering around the edges of our fairly unique upper chamber whilst the rest of the world is busily putting their local authorities much more firmly within the mechanics of policy making and scrutiny?
It would solve multiple problems: introducing greater democratic say into the composition of the upper house, while still ensuring that the mandate of the directly elected house is supreme, but more than this – it would give local authorities greater influence, thus taking them out of their traditional role as supplicants to Westminster.
Giving local authorities an active role in government would also go some considerable way to improving relations between the regions and Westminster, much more effectively allowing the divide that can often exist between Town Halls and Downing Street to be bridged.
To pen a deeply unwieldy phrase, why don’t we have an indirectly elected House of Lords?