Over the years many parties and groups have suggested ideas for reform of the House of Lords. Recently, the Labour party has suggested that the House of Lords should be replaced with a ‘Senate of the Regions and Nations’. The Brown Commission report in 2022 put detail on this proposal, outlining how a reformed House of Lords could take on a wider role and provide a stronger voice for regions and nations of the UK within Westminster.
What does a Senate of the Nations and Regions mean in practice?
In federal nations, like Germany or Australia, it is common to have a parliament with two chambers where the second chamber’s primary role is to represent territorial interests. Links to constituent regions or territories are often created through indirect election, with members elected from amongst the membership of regional legislatures. These chambers often have specific powers over legislation that directly affects sub-national government.
But second chambers can also reflect regions and communities in their structure in non-federalised states too, providing a voice for sub-national interests. The senates of Spain, Italy and France all create linkages to regional and local government within their structures.
How could a senate represent the regions and nations of the UK?
There are a number of ways of representing territorial interests within a second chamber through composition. Systems of election (direct or indirect) and appointment can represent the governments of those territories, their parliaments or people directly, and can be linked primarily to the territories, the population, or a compromise between both.
In Germany’s second chamber, the Bundesrat, members are drawn from the elected members of the state governments of the 16 Länder (states) and those members act as delegates of that state rather than independent members. In France, senators are elected indirectly by officials including Councillors, Mayors and members of the National Assembly. Similarly, in Ireland, 43 members are elected by vocational panels made up of Irish MPs (TDs), councillors and outgoing senators. In Spain, the Senate combines direct and indirect election based on different territories – the majority of senators are directly elected in multi-member constituencies based on the 51 provinces and around a fifth are appointed by the legislatures of the autonomous communities. In Australia, senators are directly elected by the populace in multi-member districts comprising of each state (and two territories).
There are therefore a number of ways of creating a senate that has strong territorial representation through election whether in a federal or non-federal country.
What would a Senate of the Regions and Nations do?
A territorially based upper chamber might also have specific powers over legislation that affects states or regions. The German Bundesrat, for instance, has veto power over legislation that affects the jurisdiction of the states. But territorial upper chambers can also provide a link to sub-national parliaments and governments through their procedures.
Second chambers may create linkages through debates and committees, may have the ability to initiate legislation relating to territorial units, or be accountable to territories by reporting to them. Accountability mechanisms could be established in the procedures of a reformed second chamber even if the membership is not comprised of devolved parliament members. For instance, members of an elected second chamber could be granted the right to speak in the devolved legislature for their area, and conversely, members of the sub-national legislature could be given the right to question members of the second chamber and address the second chamber directly. Committees focused specifically on territorial interest could provide a strong voice within a reformed upper chamber.
Labour’s Commission on the UK’s Future recommends creating these linkages by allowing elected national and regional leaders to participate in the second chamber and that a reformed upper house would also oversee the work of new intergovernmental Councils (A Council of the regions and Nations, A Council of the UK, A Council of England) through hearings and committees. Creating more formal channels like these is key to ensuring good linkage and alongside this, any enhanced process for better intergovernmental linkage would also require serious reform of the House of Lords to ensure that the composition of the House fairly reflected the nations and regions of the UK in its membership.
Why a senate of the regions and nations?
Problems with intergovernmental relations in the UK have been highlighted most clearly during the Brexit process, leading at the extreme end to breaches of the Sewel Convention. There is clearly a need for greater intergovernmental linkage and a reformed second chamber could serve such a purpose.
Currently, the unelected House of Lords is dominated by members based in London and the South East. A reformed Senate of the Regions and Nations could provide a far stronger voice for the whole of the UK within the Westminster Parliament.
Our new report on reform of the House of Lords, Unfinished Business, looks in more detail about how this could be achieved.
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