"Whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation" are the words of the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911. It is has been a long and torturous process as successive governments have wrestled with how to reform the Second Chamber. The present Government, which began the process of removing hereditary peers in 1999, has now published a White Paper setting out its views of how an elected Second Chamber would operate and replace the House of Lords. It therefore appears that there is now a real possibility that a reformed Second Chamber could become a reality although it is unlikely to be in place before the centenary of the original Parliament Act.

There are four key principles that underpin the proposed reforms to the Second Chamber:

  • Members of the Second Chamber should be elected on a different representative basis from members of the House of Commons.
  • Members of the Second Chamber should be able to bring independence of judgment to their work.
  • Members of the Second Chamber should serve a long term of office.
  • Whilst the Second Chamber should provide opportunities for independent and minority views to be represented, it should take account of the prevailing political view amongst the electorate.

The White Paper is based on the proposals endorsed by the House of Commons, which had voted in favour of either a wholly elected Chamber or a Chamber with only a small appointed element. The House of Lords, at the same time, had voted for a wholly appointed Second Chamber although that option will not be pursued.

The proposal in the White Paper is based upon the recommendation of the Wakeham Commission. This would see elected members of the Second Chamber serve a single, non-renewable term which would be between 12 and 15 years in length. It would span three electoral cycles, with a third of the members of the reformed Second Chamber being elected at any given General Election. A mechanism would be built to deal with the scenario where there were two elections in quick succession so as not to unduly reduce the term of office of members of the Second Chamber.

Although there is general consensus that the Second Chamber should be elected, the electoral system that should be used is something upon which the Government is inviting opinions in the White Paper. Options would include the first past the post system (which is currently used for elections to the House of Commons), an alternative vote, single transferable vote or some form of list system. Not only may the voting system for the Second Chamber be different from that of the House of Commons, but the constituencies will likely be different as well. The proposal that appears to find favour in the White Paper is for constituencies which are larger than those for the House of Commons and would return multiple members. Whilst the government is committed to a more democratic, if elected, Second Chamber, it is also committed to maintaining the primacy of the House of Commons. Therefore, in the choice of voting system and size of constituency, care must be taken so as not to produce a Second Chamber which could challenge the legitimacy of the House of Commons as the primary chamber of Parliament.

The door has not been closed entirely on some form of appointed element to the Second Chamber. Any appointments to the Second Chamber would again be for three electoral cycles and would be non-renewable. Appointments would be made by an independent appointments commission whilst removing the Government's role in appointments to the Second Chamber. The government is inviting comments upon the appropriateness of maintaining an appointed element.

Probably of more symbolic importance is the view that membership of a reformed Second Chamber would not carry with it a peerage or any other honour. Peers would not be disqualified from Membership of the Second Chamber but a peerage should not be conferred upon appointment. It follows from that that calling the reformed Second Chamber the "House of Lords" would appear to be inappropriate. For that reason, the Government is welcoming suggestions as to a name for the reformed Second Chamber although it at present favours calling it the "Senate".

Almost 100 years on from the passing of the Parliament Act, there are now real and meaningful proposals for the reform of the House of Lords on the table. With elections being based on three electoral cycles, there will necessarily be a long transitional period before the fully reformed Second Chamber is in place. Nonetheless, although it will have taken over 100 years to get there, the aspiration of the 1911 Parliament Act will finally be fulfilled should the proposals in the White Paper be enacted.