Wanted: an independent upper house with teeth

November 19, 1999

Meg Russell looks at how the commission charged with reforming the House of Lords can serve the needs of higher education

As parliamentarians gathered for the Queen's Speech this week, they were a depleted band. The removal of some 650 hereditary peers from the House of Lords has changed the face of the upper house.

But just as we adjust to this major change, another is due to follow, since the new house is strictly a temporary arrangement. A royal commission, chaired by Lord Wakeham, is charged with proposing a longer-term solution by the end of the year.

Some may be concerned that longer-term reform of the house will reduce the influence of higher education in the corridors of power. Polls suggest that public support is growing for a wholly or largely elected upper house. However, the United Kingdom has no tradition of senior academic figures standing for election.

So would an elected upper house result in their loss? Not necessarily. In other European countries, such as France and Spain, it is far more common for senior academics to complete a spell in parliament, returning afterwards to university duties. In Italy the inclusion of professors is particularly associated with the upper house, which is seen as more mature and deliberative, despite being wholly elected.

The absence of such figures from the Commons is partly due to the demands of a constituency-based electoral system and partly to the existence of the Lords. Both of these have channelled British experts into the upper house. However, most academic peers sit on the party benches. An elected upper house might, as the Italian senate has done, include such figures at the top of party lists.

Recent leaks from the Wakeham commission suggest that a wholly elected chamber is unlikely to be proposed. Restoration of university seats, on the Irish senate model, is improbable. A mixture of appointees and elected members is more likely. Appointments would be made by a commission, charged with picking a representative group of upper house members, including sufficient numbers of independent members who would not take a party whip. Those keen to ensure strong representation of higher education may want to look carefully at the composition and work of this commission.

One reason why distinguished professionals have been able to serve in the House of Lords has been its part-time nature. Those with academic responsibilities will not have the time, and may not have the inclination, to become full-time parliamentarians. However, the removal of the hereditary peers will have a profound effect on the chamber, and will probably require more regular attendance.

Convention has demanded that government bills be allowed to pass the Conservative-dominated upper house, in deference to the elected Commons. With the hereditaries departed, this situation ends, and consequently the party whip may be applied more rigidly. Even in the new "transitional" house, this will put pressure on those with professional interests outside. In a fully reformed house the pressure will be greater still.

In reality it may be more appropriate for higher education to rely on lobbying the upper house, rather than using moles on the inside. Most academic members already represent their particular subject specialisms, and their parties, more than academia in


Reform of the house provides an opportunity for a revamp of procedure, maybe introducing more regular hearings on bills or co-option of specialists onto committees. These may prove to be a more appropriate way to influence policy in future.

Most important of all, if the upper house is to be able to respond to lobbying, it must be sufficiently independent of the government and the lower house. An elected house need not necessarily mirror the House of Commons, and if it used a proportional system it would have a different party balance.

The Australian senate provides this counterbalance to a government-dominated lower house and negotiates changes to policy. However, it is dominated by the party whip and contains few independent members. An appointed house, on the other hand, may lack sufficient democratic legitimacy to have an impact.

The challenge for the Wakeham commission is to devise an upper house that retains its independence and expertise, but has sufficient legitimacy and public support to use its muscle when necessary. This will ensure that higher education, and the United Kingdom populace, benefits from a reformed upper house.

Meg Russell is a senior research fellow at the Constitution Unit, University College London. Her book, Reforming the House of Lords: Lessons from Overseas, will be published by Oxford University Press in January 2000.

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