2010/05/01

A proposal for Parliamentary reform in the UK

Anyone in the UK will be aware that we've got a general election coming up, and thus that our parliament is suspended until after the election; one of the many things we were promised that hasn't materialised is full reform of the upper chamber (the House of Lords). This, then, is my modest proposal for reforming Parliament to better reflect the modern UK.

First, a brief look at what we have now. Parliament is split into two houses; Commons, the elected MPs, and Lords, who are appointed for life (in theory by the monarch, in practice by the Commons). New legislation can be proposed in either house; it's debated and amended by the house in which it was proposed. Once it's approved, it's sent to the other house, where the process is repeated by a different group of people; eventually, both houses approve the legislation without amendment, and it becomes law.

There is a tie-break process in place (the Parliament Act) to ensure that the Lords cannot completely block legislation. If the Commons can agree to a proposed bill three times without amending it themselves or accepting amendments from the Lords, the Lords are not given the chance to reject or amend the legislation again.

By and large, this setup works. The Lords act to balance the Commons' short-term thinking, but cannot hold back a Commons that is determined to pass a particular piece of legislation. The back and forth process between the two houses ensures that most legislation gets discussed properly, and that it's possible for Commons MPs (who are under pressure from voters) to say "we tried to get your knee-jerk legislation in place, but it got watered down by the Lords".

There are, however, two issues that I see with it:

  1. The Lords is often reactionary and disconnected from the populace; this leads to media discontent with the Lords. I'm not entirely sure that this is an issue worth solving, as it's more about perception than reality.
  2. By and large, the flow of legislation is entirely one way; the statute book grows, but does not normally shrink. Ignorance of the law is no defence in English law, so as time goes on, it becomes harder to remain a law-abiding citizen.

Naturally, I have proposals for fixing both of these; I will start with the second, as I see this as a bigger issue.

Firstly, we need to think about why the statute book keeps growing; there are many causes for this:

  • Statute starts to cover more and more things that were previously not a problem. For example, there are no 17th century laws regulating driving on the motorway, or mobile telephony.
  • Statutes get introduced to cover things that are a concern at the time, but which are no longer relevant; for example, we still have statute covering the militias, which have long been replaced by the modern Army.
  • Statutes are introduced to cover a very specific problem; after a while, we work out that the specific problem is just one example of a more general problem, we legislate to cover the more general problem, but the specific legislation remains.
  • Statute covers something that, at the time of introduction, is believed to be a problem. As time goes by, and society adjusts, we stop enforcing statute, as we discover that there is no problem; however, the statute remains, and can be suddenly enforced at any time. Enforcement of the statute will surprise people.

It's clear that some of this can't be avoided - we need new legislation to handle problem that never existed before, and it's not surprising that general legislation overtakes specific legislation as the true scope of a problem becomes clear. However, some of it is simple waste; once we have the general legislation, we don't need the specific legislation. We don't need legislation that refers to a time gone by, and that's now irrelevant. We should lose legislation that's no longer enforced.

So, on to my modest proposal to fix this: all legislation should have a built-in expiry date. If it's not renewed by the expiry date, it comes off the statute books, and, if it's still needed, it must be reintroduced. In order to stop important legislation falling off the books, I would put a duty on the Lords to review all legislation that's approaching expiry.

Obviously, there are details to work out; what expiry date should be put on legislation? If it's too short, the Lords wastes time renewing legislation again and again; if it's too long, it doesn't keep the statute book clear. I would suggest that the ideal unit of time is the lifetime of a parliament (typically 5 years, although it can be shorter). By making the expiry the end of a parliament, we give the Lords time to renew legislation before it expires. In order to keep statute changes flowing through, I would suggest setting the expiry based on the vote that passed the legislation, according to the table below:

Size of majority in CommonsSize of majority in LordsExpiry of legislation
50% or more of the MPs who voted50% or more of the MPs who votedEnd of the next parliament (circa 5 years)
75% or more of the MPs who voted, and at least 50% of all MPs voting50% or more of the MPs who votedEnd of the parliament after next (circa 10 years)
50% or more of the MPs who voted75% or more of the MPs who voted, and at least 50% of all MPs votingEnd of the parliament after next (circa 10 years)
75% or more of the MPs who voted, and at least 50% of all MPs voting75% or more of the MPs who voted, and at least 50% of all MPs votingEnd of the 4th parliament after this one (circa 20 years)

This ensures that legislation which MPs can be persuaded to care about lasts longer than legislation that doesn't particularly appeal to their sense of duty; for example, murder laws would almost certainly get renewed for close to 20 years at a time, as would a new bill protecting people from unlawful killing, while "special interest" legislation is unlikely to last much more than 5 years at a time.

The renewal process would work much like the process for introducing new legislation; someone brings the bill for renewal before the house, it's debated, voted on, and eventually, passes; the size of majority affects when it next comes up for renewal, just like new legislation.

I would expect this to gradually reduce the size of the statute book; because many laws are non-controversial (and thus will get renewed without question), it reduces the time available to produce new laws. Laws that should be repealed will face fresh scrutiny on a regular basis, and, with any luck, the resulting reduction in rate of change of legislation will enable any citizen of the UK to memorise all the statutes that affect them.

So, onto the less important reform; making the Lords democratically accountable. There are 646 seats in the House of Commons. I would make the Lords the same size as the Commons, but, instead of electing each seat using first past the post, I would group Commons seats into 38 groups, each of which returns 16 members to the Lords. These members would be elected by the constituents of the 17 seats they represent using single transferable vote; a system in which electors mark their preferences in order, and which aims to elect the least objectionable of the candidates. Elected members survive 4 parliaments, and each constituency would be expected to elect in groups of 4 at a time at the same time as they elect their Commons MP.

This results in members of the Lords being able to take a much more long-term view than Commons MPs; they can expect to be in office for 20 years at a time, to the 5 years of a Commons MP. It also reduces the turnover, resulting in a lot of continuity in the Lords. STV also tends to prevent tactical voting - you can afford to put the virtually unelectable candidate you agree with before the very electable candidate you just about could live with, knowing that if you're right, and they don't get elected, your vote still helps prevent the candidate you couldn't live with from winning.

This leaves 38 seats empty, as against the Commons. I would increase this by 2, to get 2 more Lords than Commons. Again, these 40 would survive 4 parliaments at a time, and again, I would replace in groups of 5, so that there's a slow turnover. However, these 40 would be appointed by the incoming Commons administration; their role is to ensure that there are people in the Lords who can act as a link between the administration, including past administrations whose laws are up for renewal, and the Lords, to explain the rationale behind Government bills in Lords debate.

As you may have gathered from this ramble, I do have an interest in politics. I would be interested to hear other people's views on reforming UK politics - including explanations of why it's not needed.