The Office of Standards in Public Life, which oversees the upper-house Joint Committee on Standards in Public Life, published draft recommendations Thursday for changing British democracy, which were largely accepted.
As the new entity of the House of Lords, with more seats than the existing lower house of Parliament, the United Kingdom has gone in an unprecedented direction on the subject of rules governing the conduct of lawmakers.
Previously, when prime ministers secured a majority in Parliament, they could use their new legislative power as a sort of rubber stamp in the upper chamber, allowing them to make major policy decisions. That has all changed with the election of a new government, since the Conservatives will lose their majority in the House of Commons after Nigel Farage’s UKIP won his parliamentary seat in the recent general election.
Along with the recent reforms to make the upper house behave more like the regular House of Commons, the proposals published on Thursday would make sure that all MPs would have to declare donations of more than 5,000 pounds. They also include plans to make more members of the upper house have to pass “local” approval in order to qualify for permanent office — a feature that could potentially move the government farther away from the kind of direct constitutional change that held the agenda of lawmakers since 1815.
Here are the proposals and what is included in them.
Proposal: A “licence to serve” for members of the Lords.
The U.K. will have to come up with a new mandate for a new upper house composed of 330 members after the new line-up is completed in October.
Currently, members of the Lords serve on a “licence to serve” basis and are entitled to be elected every six years. The proposal would make them have to have a “licence to serve” and have to have been a member of Parliament for five years. Before then, they would have to be referred to an independent panel of advisers to be held responsible if they were found to have broken ethical rules or invited government ministers to events they did not attend.
The independent panel would be staffed by lawyers and financial experts who are nominated by prime ministers and select committees. The party leaders for the two houses would be able to nominate members to the panel. Membership of the panel would cost the government £100,000 per year. This was a large element of criticism to the proposal in the parliamentary report on the proposals. However, former higher education minister David Willetts said the government “couldn’t afford” to create such a panel and that the fee for some members “was not an unreasonable proposition.”
Proposal: A crackdown on donations
The new Upper House would be far more subject to parliamentary rulemaking. For instance, membership of the upper house is currently subject to the whim of the prime minister, but under a proposal drafted by the Office of Standards in Public Life, membership would be subject to the whims of the party leader.
The report calls for the upper house to be placed in the process of determining the constitutional status of political parties, rather than leaving that task to the electorate. This would allow parties to legally request the general public to nominate how many MPs the U.K. should have in the House of Lords. Membership of the Upper House would be subject to more frequent elections. The government’s coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, proposed that people would be able to be elected for no more than five years but the government has yet to propose a timeline for that process.
Proposal: Channel Britain
Amid all of the attention the government has given to the rules governing British politics and the Upper House, it also wants to create an extra forum where the public can participate more readily. Two groups are planning to create a third group that will have no legal status, but they will be free to arrange all discussions with public meetings that are open to anyone regardless of what political group they belong to. They will be free to bring all government members, all opposition members and all parliamentary peers together under the umbrella group.
A key aspect of the proposal is that members of the public will be able to have their say at meetings as long as they speak in public. Membership would cost nothing, but members of the public would have the same right to access that was granted to politicians and members of the legislature. The primary goal of this new institution would be to reach out to the general public and gather thoughts about the functions of government, the argument was that it would be open to everyone — not just top government members. The academics who have helped design the plans say the group would not be a policymaking organization, but rather a forum to gather public ideas about what the U.K. government should do.