Can Britain’s government ditch the dukes, eject the earls and kick out the cronies?
Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday set out ambitious plans to replace Britain’s 700-year-old House of Lords, the country’s unelected upper chamber, with a smaller, mostly elected body – taking on a task that has frustrated political leaders for decades.
“We have been discussing this issue for 100 years and it really is time to make progress,” Mr. Cameron told legislators, hoping his government can succeed in stripping the country’s non-elected elites of a legislative role that has its roots in the 11th century.
Like dozens of other nations, Britain sees a vital role for a second legislative chamber that carefully scrutinizes planned laws. But Mr. Cameron insists that those who carry out the task should be mainly elected – not appointed or born into their role.
If passed by Parliament – which is not guaranteed – Britain would gradually introduce elected members at the next three national elections, completing the transformation to a new 462-seat chamber by 2025.
What is the House of Lords?
The House of Lords is the upper chamber of Britain’s two-tiered Parliament, but wields far less power than the smaller and entirely elected House of Commons.
While it can amend planned laws, the Lords has no role in creating legislation.
The Commons can vote to overturn revisions made by peers, and — though it is rarely used — deploy a veto to allow legislation to be passed without the consent of the Lords. One famous case saw the Commons override the objections of the Lords to pass a 2005 ban on fox hunting
It The upper chamber currently has about 775 working members, a mix of 660 political appointees, 89 hereditary peers – who inherited a place in the chamber from their nobleman forebears – and 26 people who hold ecclesiastical offices, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
Supporters insist its membership – which includes retired military commanders, surgeons, academics and spy chiefs — brings wide expertise to its role in scrutinizing suggested policy, a range of skills they claim won’t be matched in an elected chamber.
Critics, however, point out that only Lesotho – a tiny African kingdom – has a political system similar to Britain, where a mixture of unelected and hereditary appointees can influence laws.
What does Mr. Cameron want to change?
His plans would see the current House of Lords replaced by 360 directly elected members, 90 members with no affiliation to political parties who would be appointed by an independent committee, and 12 Church of England bishops. All remaining hereditary peers will be removed.
A strict, 15-year term limit will be imposed on those elected, unlike the current system when members are appointed for life.
Voters would elect the first 120 members of the new House of Lords in May 2015, when Britain is scheduled to hold a national election. Another 120 would be elected at a planned 2020 national vote, and the final group five years later.
Lords can currently claim an allowance of up to £300 ($478) a day, and are likely to receive a fixed payment of about £45,000 a year in a reformed chamber.
In Britain’s 2009 lawmakers’ expense-check scandal, two peers were jailed over false accounting related to their allowances.
Under Mr. Cameron’s plans, members of the House of Lords convicted of criminal offences could be kicked out. Currently, those jailed for serious crimes – such as politician and novelist Jeffrey Archer and ex-media mogul Conrad Black – cannot be stripped of their seat.
Why hasn’t the Lords been reformed before?
The upper chamber’s powers have been gradually stripped away for the past 100 years.
Most recently, the House of Lords ended its role as Britain’s highest court of appeal in 2009 when a new Supreme Court took over judicial work carried out by 12 members known as the Law Lords.
Attempts to bring in election for members have previously won approval – most recently in a 2007 House of Commons vote – but reforms have been stalled by opposition in the Lords, competing priorities and worries over the possible cost.
Will Mr. Cameron face opposition?
Already, he is preparing for a fight and has warned peers that he will veto them if they attempt to stall the changes.
Some legislators have complained that constitutional changes shouldn’t be a priority when Britain is suffering a recession and implementing a tough austerity program of $130-billion in government spending cuts.
While the main opposition Labour Party Leader, Ed Miliband, said he supports the plan, he may press for a public referendum on the changes – a tactic which could significantly delay any reforms.
One hereditary peer, ex-government minister David Trefgarne, has even claimed that mere mortals have no right to meddle with the Lords.
He suggested that because his seat in the House of Lords was granted to his ancestors by Britain’s monarch – once regarded as having won the right to rule directly from God – the privilege is one conferred by divine right.
“The Almighty decided that I was to have a certain duty imposed upon me,” he told BBC radio.
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