Faint hope of Lord Adams of Ballymurphy set to disappear….

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

  • slug

    Brian, thanks for blogging this. The other issue you didn’t pick up on is whether FPTP or PR is used. If the latter then the smaller parties such as DUP and SF would have more power as close votes will be more common. The document shows alternative scenarios and that the SDLP could have a few Senators if PR is used (NI a single constituency returning 5 Senators) but not FPTP (NI divided into four constituencies).

    The Conservatives are arguing for a FPTP system however and it looks like they will be in power after the next election. (J Straw admits this will now be an issue for the next parliament and that these proposals will be in the Labour manifesto).

  • Brian Walker,

    This is not “a major opportunity for the larger nationalist party to review another shibboleth from the past “. It is, of course, a shibboleth from the present, and probably the future too for a fair while. There seems to be a complete incomprehesion amongst unionists of why SF does not participate in Westminster – rather than misrepresent their position, why don’t you actually try to find out what it is, why it is, and see if maybe they have a point?

    The retirement of the likes of Lord Laird of Artigarvan … is some long way off.


  • Basil Brush

    I am not convinced about the abolishing of the House of Lords as in my view the HOL is more in line with the public than the HOC because the Lords are not whipped as strongly and there are more independents or crossbenchers in the HOL.
    Also how much power would a new “senate” have could the HOC use the Parlimentary act of 1948 to pass laws over its heads if a Senate rejected it.

  • slug

    Don’t all shibboleths that exist in the present originate in the past?

  • slug

    Basil I think the idea of a 15 year term is that this will mean the whips have no power over the individuals. I don’t know but I think there is a proposal that Senators only serve one term. Another thing I am sure of is that the Senators would pay more than MLA/MSPs/MAs at any of the devolved legislatures as it says so in the proposal so this could again give the politician more truck vis a vis their party.

  • I think that SF does ‘represent’ its voters by NOT taking seats in Westminster. The party gets support from people precisely because of this reason.

    As for the question of Westminster retaining ‘major powers’, that’s acknowledged but not acceptable any longer. It’s a bit rich for Westminster to dispense wrt policing, law and justice, communications, tax raising etc, foreign affairs. As none of the UK’s major parties have elected members in NI it’s questionable whether they represent the public view in NI at all.

    [Incidentally, I notice big and colourful links for the Labour Party, the Lib Dems and the Tory’s on the front page of slugger – is that advertising? Are they paying for it? Or is it some form of subliminal effort by slugger to get us to think within a UK context wrt NI? Perhaps slugger should give the same prominence to all political parties on this island so as not to attract suggestions of undue political bias!]

    Leave Lord Laird alone – he’s doing a great job promoting the benefits of republicanism in the House of Lords. He’s doing for Unionism what he’s already done for Ulster Scots!

  • Brian Walker

    Slug, you write “he other issue you didn’t pick up on is whether FPTP or PR is used”. I did. Read below the fold.

  • slug

    Brian you are right – I saw that and apologise. My post develops some of the issues further.

  • jer

    Thanks for the post and the others. Nice to see a fresh view and well researched posts (not that the rest arent).
    I agree with horeseman that Unionism could profitably examine why Sinn Fein do not take representation in Westminister/Lords. Such participation would be against the very logic of the party. Will the UUP and DUP take up full representation in leinster house or the seanad in order to influnce legislation that would have an all-Ireland aspect. It could be a useful way to further safeguard the union and prevent further political integration of the island.

    The reform of the house of lords is taking one hell of a long time. Started about 98 years ago I guess when they they could only postpone legislation for two years rather than can it. Is that correct?