I’m in two minds about the prospect of the end to the House of Lords. Reluctantly, I’m finally having to give up the fantasy of a Lord Adams of Ballymurphy or Lord McGuinness of Brandywell and Lone Moor. ( yes, I know they would never have put on ermine and coronet: that’s the point of a fantasy). On the other hand, Jack Straw’s great scheme brings the prospect of a whole new elected House of Parliament to play with several big steps closer. Local politicians will be rubbing their hands with glee as they start years of new politiking , as leading constitutional analyist Peter Riddell lays out in the Times. Titles shouldn’t be a problem. Lords, that is, Barons and Baronesses, are abolished as legislators. “Senator Attwood” of the SDLP sounds ok – unless a Fianna Fail merger affects the issue.
And oh yes, there’s the temptation of new salaries for a new Upper House, with one nice long term of up to 15 years! More daunting though is the new proposal of slinging out members for idleness or incompetence, if a public petition is accepted. Let your mind wander around that one.. why not the same treatment for MPs and MLAs?
I suppose there’s not enough incentive here to shake Sinn Fein abstentionism. Yet here is a major opportunity for the larger nationalist party to review another shibboleth from the past and take the democratic decision to represent the people properly in a chamber which can probably do more than the Commons to change the details of legislation. And make no mistake, under devolution, Westminster retains major powers.
The parties are still left to take the big decisions. How many seats: around 450 is suggested. What electoral system: closed or open lists, STV or good old fashioned first-past-the-post? How many constituencies for NI, one or two or three? 100% elected members, or 80% elected and 20% appointed? If some appointed, do Church of England bishops remain? And how to make the transition from the present House of peers appointed for life? One suggestion is that one third of the present life peers retire as one third of new members are elected, taking three electoral cycles (about 12 to 15 years) to complete before the new chamber is fully in place.
The Straw scheme is led by the government but a cross-party group advised. Some oppose the scheme, mainly influential cross benchers. The small parties, the NI parties, SNP etc, weren’t included. Straw wants the plan included in the party manifestos for the next election in say 2010. But with so much left to decide – and quite a lot of party advantage to be contested – he’ll be lucky. The retirement of the likes of Lord Laird of Artigarvan and Lord Browne of Belmont is some long way off.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London