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Monday 23 April 2012 by Michael Cross
Anyone for ping-pong? Yes, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill is back in the Lords this week, for the upper house to pick over its wounded amendments following their savaging last week in the Commons. In the end, of course, the Commons will get its way. As it must, democrats will agree, however much they prefer the Lords’ approach to this particular measure.
The upper house is in the news for another reason today, with the parliamentary joint committee report’s call for an 80% elected assembly. We might wish that the current incumbents were magically conferred with democratic legitimacy, but this isn’t on offer. And, as all parties know, the chance of the reform package getting through a referendum is close to zero.
So, if we’re back to square one, may I suggest an alternative? We could replace the magnificent constitutional institution of an unelected house with another magnificent constitutional institution, the jury. I’m not proposing 12 randomly selected citizens sit through each bill, go in to a huddle and then announce ‘content’ or ‘not content’. But why not apply the selection process to creating a genuinely representative upper house? A rolling cohort of 1,000 members could be picked randomly from electoral registers, to serve for five years. Attendance would be entirely up to individuals, but would be rewarded with a per diem plus expenses. Lobbying would be banned.
How it would work in practice is anyone’s guess. We might expect a sort of 80:20 rule to manifest itself: 10% of people’s peers would be non starters; too old or infirm, or unwilling to take the oath of allegiance. Another 10% would discover a real vocation for scrutinising and improving legislation. (We’d hope that the handful of legally qualified people’s peers trawled by the system would fall in to this group.) The remaining 80% would turn up occasionally: for state openings, debates of particular interest, or simply because they needed the money.
It would be messy, but that would provide a welcome counterbalance to the whipped and careerist Commons, which is surely what the upper chamber is for. And while the Commons would still have its Parliament Act to override the other place, imagine 900 people’s peers assembling - maybe overflowing onto College Green - to vote down a truly dismal act of elective dictatorship.
What a spectacle that would be. And how difficult for a sensible government to ignore.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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