The Byles bill – or the House of Lords Reform (No 2) Bill, to give it its proper name – has its Commons Report Stage later this week, on 28 February. The private members’ bill aims to bar serious criminals from holding seats in the House of Lords, and to allow members of the Lords to permanently retire from the House.
Meg Russell of UCL has identified one potential flaw with it. It does not include a clause preventing those departing the Lords from immediately running for the Commons. Why might this matter? The problem, Russell argues here, is that this could change the relationship between the two chambers. As she argues:
In the UK we are accustomed to the Lords being the ‘senior’ chamber, in terms of age and experience, if not in terms of power. The presence of mature people, with a degree of independence from the political parties, is one of the key things that the public values about the Lords. And this ‘senior’ tendency is commonly associated with second chambers: indeed it is why many of them are titled ‘Senate’. But some senates have instead become training grounds for aspiring MPs, meaning that their members are often younger and less experienced, and focused on winning a lower house seat. Ireland is the prime example: in the recent 2011 general election, no fewer than 21 senators out of 60 sought election to the Dail. In the election of 1997, 16 senators departed the chamber to take up lower house seats. The Senate also serves as a temporary resting place for MPs who have lost their seats, until they can contest them again. This changes the dynamic between the chambers fundamentally.
The interesting thing about this is that most recent attempts to reform the Lords have explicitly included a clause to prevent this happening, but such a clause is absent from the Byles bill. If Russell’s analysis is right, then this ostensibly minor measure could bring about a much larger constitutional shift than is expected.