Submission to the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords
A response to the consultation paper made by the
Guild of Catholic Doctors
The Commission has invited views on the reform of the House of Lords, and we would wish to present our views on a limited number of issues. We will follow the general outline of questions posed in the consultation paper.
We believe that scrutiny of legislation is a crucial function of the House of Lords. This function has been done well in the past. We would wish more scrutiny of bills at an early stage in the legislative cycle. In addition to commenting on and amending parliamentary bills, we would also wish that the reformed House of Lords has a role in reviewing the effectiveness of legislation. There are examples, such as the 1967 Abortion Act, where reviewing the working of the Act at an early stage would have prevented some of the problems of doctors with conscientious objection to the Act. These doctors were discriminated against in their career development, and now there are very few doctors in obstetrics and gynaecology with conscientious objection to abortion. This has also meant that women wishing to be treated by doctors who do not perform abortions - and there are a significant number - is very limited.
Scrutiny of the executive, is a an extension of scrutiny of legislation, and should be strengthened. The reformed House of Lords should be able to call all members of the government, whether ministers in the House of Commons, or in the Lords, to be questioned by committees.
We have no specific duties in views area, but do not see any particular problems with the way the system currently operates.
We believe that this area is ideally suited to the reformed House of Lords. The effectiveness of any reformed second chamber will crucially depend on its membership, and this is addressed later, but we would hope that it has a wide representation by individuals in all walks of life who by their background and experience will be ideally suited to participate in such activities. If the reformed second chamber was truly independent of political party control, it is more likely to produce high quality reports offering both high quality and balanced opinions.
We support the suggestion that the House of Lords provides a forum for discussion of significant issues in an atmosphere which is less party political. Certainly the debates in the current House of Lords are of far higher calibre than those heard in the Commons. We would certainly wish to preserve such debate.
It is this area which will be of crucial importance to the success of any reformed House of Lords. Although there is some value in professional politicians, their overall role in the second chamber must not be dominant. The value will depend on having members drawn from a wide range of expertise, such as lawyers, doctors, teachers, scientists etc, etc. Such individuals should be able to offer their views and comments without the constraints of a party political whip. We would therefore wish the majority of the second chamber to consist of cross-benchers.
If it is desirable that a second chamber should scrutinise the function of the government, then it would also be logical for local, regional and devolved national bodies to also be scrutinised. The House of Lords could and should be able to take on that roll.
Several bioethical conventions have been introduced by the European Union, which have never been debated in the UK parliament. The representation by a few members of the European parliament is insufficient and too far removed to be truly representative. The reformed second chamber should be able to closely examine the impact of European legislation on this country, before being approved by the Council of Ministers.
International instruments etc
Our comments about Europe above, equally apply to treaties in which the executive exercises its powers of prerogative. There should be greater Parliamentary scrutiny of such draft treaties, and the second chamber should have a role in this area.
Major public appointments
The government of the day exercises authority by virtue of its majority in parliament. Many do not realise that there are many bodies which have considerable power and influence and are controlled by individuals appointed by government. Although the Nolan committee has tightened the appointment of such individuals, it is obvious that government still wealds considerable power in appointing individuals of its choice. The second chamber should have formalised powers to scrutinise the exercise of the executives powers in these appointments.
Although we are an increasingly secular society, a significant proportion of the population not only belongs in name to an organised religion, but practise their religion. Although the current representation by the Lords Spiritual is valuable, there should be wider representation by other major faiths. Although it may be inappropriate for religious leaders from all the faiths to sit in the second chamber, there should be representation by individuals of those faith communities. There is the possibility that the leadership of the major faiths may make recommendations and nominations for such representation. There are many areas of legislation which have an impact in areas of ethics and morals, and it is only right that the faith communities have an effective way to make their views known in these areas.
We suggest that the status quo, whilst functioning on a less adversarial party political basis, should remain. We accept that financial bills should remain the absolute prerogative of the elected government in the Commons, but all other bills should pass through both houses with the opportunity for significant amendment. An example is the lowering of consent for homosexuality. Repeated surveys have shown that the majority of the country is opposed to such legislation, and yet the House of Commons passed the bill by a large majority, which certainly did not reflect the views of the wider majority.
We would argue against any reduction of the powers currently available to the House of Lords. A body without power and authority is of no value.
We would be against an elected second chamber. Elected members would be professional politicians and the process would be dominated by party politics. We believe that the most effective second chamber is one which is completely independent and in which members are not bound to political party whips, but can truly vote according to their conscience on all matters. Although the party political system, with two major parties, has served this country well and should be regarded as a good system, the membership of any government cannot be truly regarded as representative of society as a whole by the very nature of the party whip system.
Methods of composition
A fully elected upper chamber would be dominated by party politics, and as has been recently demonstrated in the USA, such a position is not necessarily a good thing particularly when it comes to scrutinising the workings of the executive. On the other hand a totally nominated body could either be toothless with no sense of direction or be manipulated by virtue of how it is appointed.
We feel that a significant proportion of the reformed Lords should sit there by virtue of nomination. There are areas of legislation which have fundamental bearing on issues of right and wrong, ethics and morals. Currently the faith communities have no specific official representation; for example Roman Catholics form 12% of the population. There should be a system whereby recognised National Catholic bodies could suggest nominations for consideration by an Appointments Commission. Criteria for membership would have to be defined, but should be broad to include a wide range of professional expertise. We would oppose random selection from an electoral roll, as we would expect members to have some degree of expertise to offer.
We oppose the view that membership of the second chamber should consist mainly of people taking a party whip. It would be a disaster if the government always had a majority of all other parties represented in the second chamber. The party whip system in such circumstances would ensure that all legislation could be passed without any serious scrutiny. Maintenance of a sizeable block of "independent" members should be maintained by having a significant number nominated by an independent Commission in which the political parties could not nominate members.
Membership of the House of Lords should not be seen purely in terms of award of an honour, but membership of a working house where participation is expected. If members did not maintain a minimum participation, then their membership would lapse, whilst active members could continue as long as they remained active.
There is a necessity for different ethnic and religious groups to be represented, but it should not be so tightly organised as to the specific numbers in each category. Members must be appointed on merit and competence. Although the presence of bishops in the House of Lords is valuable, we do not feel that their presence should be regarded as an umbrella safeguarding the place of all the major world faiths in our society. The suggestion that religious leaders of the significant faiths be members of the second chamber is not necessarily valid. The leaders of the faith communities have a full time role in leading those communities. What is required is that representatives from those faith communities, with views and opinions in agreement with their leadership, should be in the second chamber.
The main point we wish to make is that Catholic representation in the second chamber should broadly reflect the population and we believe that lay bodies should be able to make nominations. Specifically we feel that the Catholic medical perspective should be represented. There are an increasing number of bio-ethical areas requiring legislation in which a purely secular perspective is insufficient and a faith based view must be heard.
Mr Patrick Coyle
Master - Guild of Catholic Doctors