A democratic crisis is brewing – reforming the Lords has never been more important

For peers to resist the government's Brexit plans, they must have democratic legitimacy

Image: UK Parliament

There have always been good reasons for reforming the House of Lords, but there has never been the urgency that Brexit has brought about.

Our democracy is going through a crisis that could result in our losing a whole set of social and environmental protections in a right-wing cull of decisions by executive dictate. An effective second chamber is essential, but it has to have more legitimacy if it going to stand up against ministers determined to bypass Parliament with secondary legislation and hasty trade deals.

Today’s second reading of my House of Lords reform bill is an opportunity for peers, rather than MPs, to take the lead in making the change happen. My bill would use proportional representation to elect a new house, but keep many existing peers as non-voting experts. This is the first time such a mix of proposals has come from within the Lords.

There are three dangers down the road with Brexit. One is that the Government simply leaves a lot of European law out of the Great Repeal Bill.

Another is that much of the detail is put in secondary legislation, which gets less scrutiny and is extremely difficult to amend and vote down. In both cases they’d hope nobody notices, or that any opposition would be swamped by the focus around other issues like single market access.

A third is that the Government gives itself so-called Henry the Eighth powers to unilaterally repeal or amend these laws after the act passes, opening the door to a bonfire of environmental and social protections.

I campaigned to leave the EU because I always believed that devolved decision making and a more direct democracy are essential steps in taking back control from the multinationals and distant bureaucrats. These are principles I shared with many on the left, such as Tony Benn and Bob Crow, but I have been at odds with the official Green Party belief that striving for a reformed EU is the best way of securing essentials like freedom of movement and workers’ rights.

The way this government is lining up to sneak through its ideological agenda under the cover of the referendum result is reinforcing the view of many remainers that they need to fight harder to retain the securities and safeguards of the Brussels rulebook.

The nature of the beast of democracy is that you are often on the losing side and things are done that you don’t agree with. We can all live with that. But what the government is threatening to do is to take executive powers that allow no debate and little discussion, while they destroy pollution controls, environmental safeguards and workplace safeguards.

The Great Repeal Bill will just be the start, as secondary legislation and Ministerial misjudgements are hurried through. Next will come all the detailed giveaways in the trade negotiations with the likes of Trump. We know from our experience with TTIP that these external treaties have significant internal impacts. Modern trade deals need as much parliamentary scrutiny as any legislation.

I don’t under-estimate the practical problems with parliament dealing with the sheer volume of secondary legislation and trade negotiations, which is why we need a functioning second chamber that has real legitimacy.

If the government does grab the Henry the Eighth powers, an unelected and unreformed second chamber will lack the legitimacy to face them down. We urgently need a democratic revolution that will bring in PR and a system where every vote counts.

The second reading of my Bill to reform the house of Lords from within, will give peers the chance to save our democratic system from the Government’s attempt at a power grab.

Jenny Jones is a Green Party peer and a former London Assembly Member

See: ‘Rushed’, ‘Nothing new’: Progressives respond to Brexit white paper

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