Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

The new Lords will be a house under English rule

The proposed reform of the upper chamber is a rushed affair. What it really needs is a long-term perspective, says Paul Behrens

Today, Parliament debates the House of Lords Reform Bill. That, in itself, is not too exciting: a government which doesn't try to reform the Lords is like a summer without sightings of Nessie.

What is fascinating this time is that the new Lords is hailed as a chamber with true regional representation.

Regional representation is a marvellous idea and one that has been widely adopted for second chambers. But the devil is in the detail, as history has shown.

In 1871, a regional council was constituted for the new German empire, with the aim of bringing 25 German states under one umbrella.

Only: its creator - the Prussian prime minister Bismarck - was smart enough to make sure Prussia had no fewer than 17 seats in that body, more than any other state.

The new Lords Bill has not escaped the Prussian problem. In fact, its regulations are more troubling than Bismarck's constitution.

Tucked away in Schedule 2 is the formula for the allocation of elected peers. Three elections are to take place before the full strength of the house is reached.

At each of these, Scotland gets 10 peers, Wales six and Northern Ireland three. England gets a whopping 101. Among the first 120 delegates, it would take the combined power of Northern Ireland, Scotland and four Welsh peers just to outvote the south-east of England.

There is method in the madness: the majority of the UK population does live in England. But that means the new house does not really represent the regions - not if a region is an individual entity with its own culture, history and sense of self.

The nine English 'regions' are mostly just constituencies which are somewhat larger than their counterparts in the Commons.

Other countries have systems in which each constituent part of a union is treated as an individual - regardless of population.

In the United States, California gets no more senators than Wyoming (two), even though its population is 66 times larger. That really is pure regionalism.

But it may not be politically feasible today: it is difficult to suggest that more than 50 million people in England should get no more delegates than the 3m Welshmen.

Some systems are not quite as extreme. In 1949, (West) Germany established a new federal council, in which its 16 states are represented.

Each state has a minimum of three seats and there's additional seats for those whose population is a certain size (2m, 6m and 7m respectively). The maximum number of seats for any state is six.

It does not remove all disparity: the most populous state (North Rhine-Westfalia) is certainly under-represented. Compromises have to be made and it is unavoidable that the biggest regions have to give up part of their claims.

But it seems to work: London's Constitution Unit refers to Germany as 'one of the few countries' in which there appears to be no pressure to reform the second chamber.

Finding the right formula for seat-allocation is tricky. And it is by far not the only challenge which Lords' reform entails.

Why a regional chamber in the first place? Is it meant as a carrot for Alex Salmond and company who might otherwise vote for secession?

In that case, the carrot is hardly big enough. It's not only a question of seats: the powers the Lords currently enjoy are too weak to be a tempting bribe. Even Bismarck's federal council had more authority.

It's hard to dispel the thought that the Lords reform is a rushed affair, motivated by the lure of easy success. But constitutional reform needs a long-term perspective.

It needs to understand that no part of the constitution exists in a vacuum and that changes to one element have an impact on the others.

Lenin was not altogether wrong in suggesting everything is connected to everything else - a lesson no government can afford to ignore.

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