House of Lords Reform
12 March 2007


In a debate on House of Lords Reform in the House of Lords on 12 March 2007 Lord Trimble said,

' My Lords, it would be easy to say that I entirely agree with many of the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and that having referred to them, I almost feel as though I could rest my case. However, perhaps I can put my own arguments in a slightly summary form. The noble and learned Lord was absolutely right in his analysis that the choice is essentially between an appointed body and an elected body. The arguments put against hybrid bodies are unanswerable, so that is the choice.

If there is an elected body, the points that came out from the excellent report of the Conventions Committee apply. As the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, has said, that report was careful to say that it was dealing only with the present situation, and that if an elected element comes into the House the conventions will be reconsidered. That is true. Elected persons will want to exercise their mandate. The theoretical powers of this House are enormous; they will want to exercise those theoretical powers and they will not regard themselves as limited by conventions which are based on the fact that this House is not elected. One simply has to state that to see that that is the case.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor seemed to be arguing that the only way of restraining the tendency of elected members to exercise the theoretical powers is by legislating in some way. If one were to legislate on that, inevitably one would be drawn towards what appears to be the position of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—that we should move towards adopting a formal, comprehensive written constitution. That is an enormous undertaking and it would result in bringing the courts and the judges into Parliament to arbitrate, which is not our tradition and would not be welcome to everyone here.

The train of thought that I am developing seems to lead towards the conclusion of the noble Lords to whom I referred at the outset—namely, an appointed body. But, for a variety of reasons, there is distaste for the concept . I want to lay before your Lordships an example of procedure elsewhere, which managed to combine a form of election with retaining, completely unaffected, the supremacy of the lower House. It worked quite satisfactorily and, as far as I am aware, it has not been mentioned so far in the literature—I have not read as widely as some and I may be corrected. I refer to the experience in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1971 with our Senate, the upper House.

That House was almost entirely elected, with only two ex officio persons. The members were elected by the Northern Ireland House of Commons by single transferable vote—proportional representation—for an eight-year period, with half of them elected every four years. Although the members were elected, their electoral mandate stemmed from the Northern Ireland House of Commons and they were, in a sense, accountable to that House. The upper House acted as a revising chamber, as this Chamber tries to do, without in any way challenging the authority of the Commons.

Those who were elected did not have to canvass and campaign. They were relieved of the need to seek election, which is a significant factor in getting people into a revising body. Plenty of people with valuable expertise do not want to stand for election, so it was beneficial in that respect. As the electorate in the Commons could tell from their composition how many persons they would elect, in substance the Senate was appointed, so that was a way of squaring the circle. That may not be considered appropriate, but I thought it worth mentioning. By doing so, I do not want my fellow Cross-Benchers to think that I want to get rid of the Cross Benches—I say that for my own self-preservation, if for no other reason.

I have been a Member of this House for a less than a year. I was in the other place for much longer. Like almost everyone who has come from the other place, I approached this issue wanting to maintain the authority and the supremacy of the House of Commons. It has been said here quite rightly that the House of Commons does not really understand what happens here. That is not the question. The problem is that the House of Commons today does not seem to understand the effect its vote will have on the Commons, if it is ever carried into law and those changes are brought about. I do not think that MPs appreciate fully the extent to which what they appear to want to do will bring about a massive change in the Commons, and a massive transfer of power away from the Commons to the elected element here. Some of those who voted for the 100 per cent elected option may well be aware of the spanner that they were appearing to toss into the works.

I have agreed with some of those who spoke earlier but I end by disagreeing. I am sorry that my disagreements are almost entirely with the Liberal Democrats. I do not think it is appropriate to speak about the vote in the other place last week as being a decisive fact. It was a significant factor, but it has not decided anything and decisions are some way away. If the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will forgive me for saying it, it is wrong to start warning us of the dangers of confrontation. We are nowhere near that point yet. We are entitled to take whatever view we think of the matter and we are entitled to ask those in the other place to think again. I add to that a strong plea to those in the other place to think again, because if they proceed further down the path on which they have started, they will do enormous damage to themselves and hence to the functioning of this Parliament as a whole. I think we should do what we can to avoid that consequence.'

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12 March 2007


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