November 28, 2022

With around 800 members, the British House of Lords is the second largest legislature in the world – Copyright POOL/AFP Ben STANSALL

Jitendra JOSHI

The British House of Lords shares some features with China’s National People’s Congress: their distinctive color is red, and both are not elected by popular vote.

They are also the two largest legislative bodies in the world.

After the quick departures of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss from 10 Downing Street this year, the House of Lords is set to grow even larger despite calls for a reduction.

With around 800 MPs, the upper chamber of the British Parliament lags behind the nearly 3,000 delegates in the Chinese unicameral Congress.

But the House of Lords is significantly larger than any other chamber in a democracy. India, with a population of 1.4 billion, limits the membership of its upper house to 250.

The Lords has long faced calls for reform to make it more representative and less “a chamber full of grotesqueness and hate”, as one parliamentary writer put it in The Times newspaper.

However, by convention, outgoing prime ministers are entitled to nominate a “roll of honor for resignation” – usually allies, aides and associates to be knighted.

Johnson’s 20-man resignation list will be reviewed by a review committee, and some of his selections are likely to prove controversial.

Truss has the same aspiration to reward her followers despite only serving 49 days.

Her successor, Rishi Sunak, will respect convention and not interfere in her selection, his official spokesman told reporters on Tuesday.

– Baron of Siberia –

Prior to his resignation, Johnson had already appointed about 90 colleagues, including his brother Jo, during his three-year tenure, ignoring an official recommendation to downsize the chamber.

In 2020, Johnson installed his Moscow-born friend Evgeny Lebedev as “Baron Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation”, despite reported objections to the newspaper magnate by British intelligence chiefs.

The chamber, once dominated by hereditary peers, is now made up of life political appointments, as well as those nominated for prominent positions in the public or private sector, and Church of England clergy.

Many were donors to the ruling Conservatives, including Peter Cruddas, who was made a peer by Johnson against the advice of the Lord’s Review Board following a “Cash for Access” political scandal.

A reform commission, which included senior Tory lords, recommended in 2017 that the chamber be reduced to 600 members and only allow one entry for every two departures.

The report has since languished in obscurity as several governments hesitate to relinquish its patronage, particularly when the House of Lords is busy thwarting its legislative agenda.

But all sides pay lip service to the idea of ​​change. Only 29 per cent of Lords are women and their membership is hardly national, with just under half coming from London and south-east England.

The opposition Labor Party has promised to relaunch a reform course begun by Tony Blair’s government in the late 1990s.

One idea would be to replace the House of Lords with an indirectly elected assembly of regions and British nations, which would have the power to refer the government to the Supreme Court for violations of the Constitution.

– “Democratically unacceptable” –

“The system is the problem — it’s not just the recent turmoil in changing prime ministers,” said Jess Garland, director of policy at the Electoral Reform Society.

“The blueprint for the reform is there. There is a real democratic imperative for the Lords to be appointed by the people who are ultimately affected by their laws,” she told AFP.

“Maybe someday we’ll see a list of Lords by Liz Truss. But not having a say in who sits there is democratically unacceptable.”

As it stands, the upper chamber cannot overrule the laws of the popularly elected lower house. But it can change and delay bills.

The upper house enjoys far more influence than the ornamental National People’s Congress, which is due in March to approve last month’s decision by the Communist Party to grant President Xi Jinping a historic third term.

Britain has been the fifth prime minister since Xi took control of China in 2012.

The youngest, Sunak, believes the House of Lords plays a “vital role” in British democracy, according to his spokesman.

But he said constitutional reform is not an “immediate priority” as the new prime minister is tackling an economic crisis inherited from Truss – some of the authors could now be rewarded with titles.

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