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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg unveiled plans on Tuesday to transform Britain’s House of Lords into an elected body.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Clegg said that “People have a right to choose their representatives. That is the most basic feature of a modem democracy.”
“Our second Chamber, which is known for its wisdom and expertise, is none the less undermined by the fact it is not directly accountable to the British people,” he continued.
Currently, most of the 789 members of the House of Lords are appointed for life, but there are also 26 Church of England bishops and 92 hereditary peers. Clegg’s plans would see the Lords reduced to 300 and 80 percent of its members would be elected for 15 year terms. In order to avoid duplicating the mandate of the Commons, members of the Lords would be elected using the single transferable vote system.
The other 20 percent would be appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. Twelve representatives of the Church of England would continue to sit in the reformed Lords. Rather than impose reform in one fell swoop, the government proposes phasing elected members in over three five-year electoral cycles.
The draft bill published today will be scrutinized by a joint committee of peers and MPs, and it could be a year before the committee makes a final report. The proposals could ultimately be derailed by the Lords themselves if they refuse to pass the bill. Theoretically, the government could use the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 to force the bill onto the statute book, but reports over the weekend suggested that they would be unlikely to do so.
Labour’s constitutional affairs spokesman Sadiq Khan criticized the proposals, calling them “a dog’s dinner, with nobody happy at the outcome—not even the Lib Dem activists, whom the Deputy Prime Minister is trying to appease.”
Any proposal to create a largely-elected House of Lords would not only anger large numbers of peers but also has the potential to upset Britain’s constitutional applecart. The primacy of the Commons has been a settled matter since the passage of the Parliament Act 1911, but if the Lords ends up being predominantly elected, its continued subordination will be much harder to justify. Although Clegg maintained that a reformed Lords would continue to be a revising chamber, the specter of US-style legislative gridlock looms large over the government’s proposals.