Dr Meg Russellwritten evidence |
1. House of Lords reform is once again on Britain's
political agenda. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition
government formed in 2010 has announced its intention to replace
the currently unelected second chamber with one that is largely
or wholly elected. In May 2011 it published a white paper and
draft bill to achieve that end.
These proposals are controversial, and provoked a mixed reaction
when presented to the two chambers of parliament a month later.
The next step in the process is for a joint committee of both
Houses to consider the proposals, and report in spring 2012. This
may be followed by formal introduction of a bill in 2012-13.
2. Lords reform has been discussed at length
in Britain in the last 15 years, with no fewer than five previous
government white papers since 1997, plus a Royal Commission and
numerous other reports. Most attention to date has focused on
options for changing the second chamber's composition. Here the
latest proposals seek to build on what has gone before, as parliamentary
opinion appears to have gradually moved towards a largely or wholly
elected chamber, with the Commons expressing its in principle
support for this in 2007.
Relatively less attention has so far been given to the appropriate
powers for a second chamber, and indeed how powers and composition
interrelate. But focus has shifted in this direction with the
publication of the latest proposals, for two reasons. First, because
with the argument over composition seemingly over, it is now important
to consider what the repercussions of a largely elected chamber
would be. But second, because clause 2 of the draft bill controversially
suggests that '[n]othing in the provisions of this Act... affects
the primacy of the House of Commons... or the conventions governing
the relationship between the two Houses'. This clause attracted
much critical attention during the parliamentary debates.
3. Opponents of election to the House of Lords,
and indeed some who support it, believe instead that a reformed
chamber with a more democratic composition would inevitably make
greater use of its powers. That is, that whatever is written into
the bill, the conventions governing the relationship between the
two chambers would change. This had previously been the conclusion
of a joint parliamentary committee established in 2006 specifically
to consider the conventions, which suggested that '[i]f the Lords
acquired an electoral mandate... their relationship with the Commons,
would inevitably be called into question, codified or not'.
4. In the face of such concerns, those on the
government side have been keen to cite examples of bicameral parliaments
overseas as evidence that greater 'democratic legitimacy' need
not go alongside greater powers, or lead inexorably to more challenges
to the elected lower chamber. For example when the proposals were
published Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg emphasised that:
... There are a number of bicameral systems in
democracies around the world that perfectly manage an asymmetry
between one chamber and the next, even though both might, in many
cases, be wholly elected.
5. During the debates in June 2011, various claims
were made about international practice. Most notably, former Liberal
Democrat leader Lord Ashdown told the House of Lords that '[o]f
the 77 bicameral Chambers in the world, 61 are elected. In no
single one of those has the primacy of the lower Chamber been
This intervention seemed to set off a parliamentary game of 'Chinese
whispers', including Shadow Lord Chancellor Sadiq Khan suggesting
to the Commons that '[o]f the 61 other bicameral Parliaments,
none has an appointed upper chamber. All of them are elected and
seen to be doing a pretty decent job'.
6. The contradiction between these two statements
already makes clear that there is a good deal of muddle surrounding
the practice of bicameralism internationally, both in terms of
second chambers' composition and their powers. The purpose of
this article is therefore to try and set the record straight,
by presenting a brief and purely factual account on both matters.
In doing so, the claims made by politicians in the current British
debate will be critically examined. It is hoped that this will
be of use to those engaged in the Lords reform debate, and perhaps
to those in other countries considering similar parliamentary
reforms. Given that no similar survey currently exists with respect
to second chamber powers, the article should also be of wider
interest to scholars and students of bicameralism.
7. The first section of the article presents
information about the composition of all the world's national
second chambers that were operational in October 2011. The next
section considers the powers with respect to the first chamber
of all largely or wholly elected second chambers. The third section
of the article looks briefly at a common feature of bicameralism:
the use of joint committees to resolve intercameral disputes.
The paper concludes that bicameral arrangements are extremely
diverse, both in terms of composition and powers. The statements
in recent debates have been somewhat misleading, in several respects.
Directly elected second chambers are less common in parliamentary
systems than might be assumed, although more common under presidentialism.
In many such cases, chambers are 'co-equal', with no sense of
the 'primacy' of the lower house. Nonetheless amongst parliamentary
systems, the formal powers of the House of Lords are relatively
strong. If the chamber is reformed to become largely or wholly
elected, and this causes it to make greater use of its powers,
it would become one of the stronger second chambers in parliamentary
systems internationally. But this would be welcomed by some, who
wish to see stronger checks on the UK executive and its majority
in the House of Commons.
The existence and composition of second chambers
8. Lord Ashdown's comments were broadly correct
about the number of second chambers internationally (though arguably
about little else). Reliable information on this matter is available
from the Inter-Parliamentary Union's extremely useful online database,
and is regularly updated. The number of such chambers tends to
fluctuate, in part due to changes in the number of national parliaments
judged to exist by the IPU, and in part due to parliaments shifting
from unicameral (single-chamber) to bicameral (two-chamber) and
vice versa. On 5 October 2011 the IPU database included 190 national
parliaments, of which 78 were bicameral and 112 were unicameral.
In May 1999 the equivalent figures were 66 and 112 respectively.
Bicameralism therefore remains popular, and perhaps increasingly
All 76 national second chambers, by composition and regime type,
5 October 2011
|Wholly directly elected (21)
||Australia, Czech Republic, Japan, Romania, Switzerland (5)
||Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Liberia, Mexico, Nigeria, Palau, Paraguay, Philippines, Poland, USA, Uruguay (16)
|Wholly indirectly elected (16)
||Austria, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Netherlands, Pakistan, Slovenia, South Africa (9)
||Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Russia, Sudan (7)
|Majority directly elected, minority indirectly elected (2)
||Spain, Thailand (2)
|Majority directly elected, minority appointed (3)
||Italy (1)||Bhutan, Burma (2)
|Majority directly elected, plus indirectly elected, appointed and hereditary (2)
||Belgium, Zimbabwe (2)
|Majority indirectly elected, minority appointed (11)
||Cambodia, India, Ireland (3)
||Afganistan, Algeria, Belarus, Burundi, Kazakhstan, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (8)
|Wholly appointed (16)
||Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Yemen (11)
||Bahrain, Jordan, Madagascar, Oman, South Sudan (5)
|Majority appointed, minority indirectly elected (3)
||Malaysia (1)||Senegal, Swaziland (2)
|Majority appointed, minority hereditary (1)
||United Kingdom (1)
|Majority hereditary, minority appointed (1)
Composition of second chamber: IPU Parline Database,
www.ipu.org, accessed October 5, 2011. Exceptions: Egypt and Tunisia,
whose parliaments and constitutions are currently suspended, excluded.
Russia coded as indirectly elected, despite IPU description as
Presidential or parliamentary: World Bank dataset.
Exceptions: Palau and Antigua and Barbuda are missing from this
dataset; Pakistan and South Africa are placed in a third category
on the basis that they have an assembly-elected president. All
four were classified instead on the basis of their constitutions,
and specifically presence or absence of a confidence vote.
9. Table 1 lists all of those countries judged
bicameral by the IPU in October 2011, excluding Egypt and Tunisia
(whose constitutions were suspended at the time). It also indicates
the composition method of each second chamber, based on information
from the same database, and whether the country in question was
'parliamentary' or 'presidential' (as further discussed below).
We see that bicameralism is common in Europe (particularly in
the more populous countries), in the Commonwealth, and the Americas.
There are also examples elsewhere, including in Africa, the Middle
East and Asia Pacific.
10. With respect to second chambers' composition,
perhaps the most notable feature here is the diversity of methods
used. First chambers are normally directly elected by the people,
but of the 76 second chambers, only 21 are composed wholly in
this way. Instead other composition methods are common. The first
is 'indirect election': that is, election by a group of people
who were themselves chosen by the public. Election by members
of regional or provincial parliaments is common for example (as
in Spain and South Africa), or by local councillors (as in Ireland
and France). Second chamber members can also be chosen by subnational
governments (as in Germany). This presents something of
a borderline case between election and appointment, but is classified
here as indirect election. Once these forms of election are included,
39 national second chambers are wholly elected.
11. More straightforward forms of appointment
to second chambers are, however, common. Altogether, 18 of these
chambers (including the House of Lords) have no elected members
at all; a further 19 include some unelected members. This last
statement makes clear another common feature of second chambers'
composition: that it often mixes members chosen in different ways.
This is true of 23 chambers in total. In two cases this simply
comprises a mixture of directly and indirectly elected members.
But in 19 it combines some elected members and others who are
unelected. Of these, 16 are majority elected, while three are
majority appointed. Thus, 55 second chambers in total are largely
or wholly elected (and three others include some elected members).
This falls a little short of the 61 elected second chambers claimed
by Lord Ashdown.
12. The inclusion of regime type in the table
demonstrates that directly elected second chambers are significantly
more common in presidential systems than parliamentary systems
(such as that in the UK). We see that directly elected chambers
are common in countries influenced by the US model, particularly
elsewhere in the Americas. In contrast, many Commonwealth countries
have unelected second chambers. In other parliamentary democraciesfor
example in Europe and Asiathe picture is more mixed. But
notably, only five of the 36 parliamentary bicameral states have
second chambers that are wholly directly elected. Even some presidential
democracies include indirectly elected and appointed members in
their second chambers.
13. The presidential model centres on a single
individual with significant executive power.
In the US, and many countries modelled upon it, the president
has a real veto over legislation. The same does not apply to either
the Prime Minister or the head of state in most parliamentary
systems. In parliamentary systems the government depends on the
confidence of the legislature (though normally only the lower
house) for its survival, while this does not apply in presidential
states. Under presidentialism, therefore, the executive is far
less dependent on the legislature, meaning that a strong legislature
is less of a threat to government stability.
The powers of second chambers
14. As indicated above, UK politicians have sought
to make generalisations about the powers of second chambers, as
well as their composition. This information is far less readily
available, and is not collected by the IPU. It therefore needs
to be gathered by carefully reading each individual country constitution,
and secondary literature where this exists.
I am only aware of one previous global survey of this kind, conducted
by John Coakley and Michael Laver in 1997.
This classified second chamber powers as 'greater than', 'more
or less equal to', or 'less than' the powers of the respective
lower house. Such classification is very difficult in practice,
given the great variety of possible second chamber powers. For
example, such chambers may have power over public appointments,
the signing of treaties, linguistic rights or other constitutional
matters. For simplicity, and because none of these special powers
apply in the case of the House of Lords, we focus here simply
on second chamber powers over government legislation.
15. Even here the picture is not straightforward,
as second chambers often have different powers over different
kinds of bills. The UK offers a good example. Here the Parliament
Acts 1911 and 1949 reduced the power of the Lords from an absolute
veto over all legislation to a delay of around a year on most
government bills (as further discussed below). But there are a
number of exceptions. First, the Acts stipulate that 'money bills'
(i.e. those dealing exclusively with 'charges') may be delayed
by the Lords for only a month. Second, they specify that any bill
seeking to extend the life of a parliament remains subject to
an absolute veto. Third, and more importantly in everyday terms,
the limitation on the Lords' powers was only applied to bills
starting their parliamentary passage in the House of Commons.
Bills introduced in the Lords itself (which make up around a third
of the total) therefore remain subject to the veto. As a result,
governments tend only to introduce relatively less controversial
bills into the Lords.
16. In other countries, it is likewise quite
common for second chambers to have greater power over some legislative
matters than others. As in the UK, reduced power over financial
legislation, and increased power over key constitutional legislation,
is particularly common. Further, in several federal countries
where the second chamber represents subnational units (i.e. provinces
or states), it enjoys more power over legislation on regional
matters, variously defined. This applies for example in Germany,
and in South Africa, where bicameralism was based to some extent
on the German model.
17. It is thus not straightforward to classify
second chambers' legislative powers, even when constitutions are
readily available and easy to interpret, which is not always the
On top of this, an added dimension of complexity is created by
the various mechanisms through which second chambers may block
or delay bills, and the various mechanisms by which conflicts
of this kind between the chambers may be resolved.
18. As far as possible, given these caveats and
limitations, Table 2 shows information for the legislative powers
of all the largely or wholly elected second chambers above (excepting
four cases for which no reliable data could be traced). This amounts
to 51 cases, with the UK shown for comparison. In each case the
intention is to show the chamber's maximum power over 'normal'
government legislation, excluding special cases such as financial,
constitutional or emergency bills. Where more than one category
of legislation might be considered 'normal' (e.g. in Germany,
where half of bills deal with regional matters), the chamber's
maximum power is shown, and any special cases are indicated in
19. The table shows that just under half of elected
second chambers21have an absolute veto power over
normal legislation. That is, if the chamber rejects (or in most
cases amends) a bill, the executive and first chamber have no
way of imposing their will. In cases where the second chamber
veto is absolute, it makes little sense to speak of the 'primacy'
of the lower house. Such a statement would certainly not be recognised
in the US, for example. Instead, the two chambers may be considered
essentially 'co-equal'. Hence it is clearly not accurate to claim,
as Lord Ashdown does above, that 'in no single case' does an elected
second chamber challenge the primacy of the first chamber. Neither
can it be said, in Nick Clegg's words, that the two chambers 'perfectly
manage an asymmetry'. Instead they might be considered, at least
on the important matter of government legislation, to be symmetrical.Table
2: Elected second chambers and their powers (with UK for comparison)
|No override power
UK (unelected, Lords bills only)
|Joint sitting (A= by absolute majority, % = by supermajority)
Uruguay (66 %)
||Japan (66 %)
South Africa (JC) (varies)7
|Belarus (66 %) (JC)
Burundi (66 %) (JC)8
Russia (JC) (66 %)
Tajikistan (66 %)
UK (unelected, Commons bills)
|No clear upper house role
Italics denote wholly or mostly indirectly elected,
others wholly or mostly directly elected.
JC = joint committee included within the conciliation
process (see below for discussion).
* Based on limited information.
Excluded: Cambodia, Congo, Democratic Republic
of Congo (no English-language constitution available), Sudan (operating
under a 2005 'interim' constitution, which does not contain specific
information on legislative process). Plus Egypt and Tunisia, as
in Table 1.
Germany: Second chamber can veto completely on regional issues.
On others, a 2/3 upper house majority may only be overridden by
2/3 lower house majority (or normal majority by normal majority).
Cannot amend bills, can only vote to reject or approve. Rejection
Rejection of a bill cannot be overridden. On amendments, 2/3 upper
house majority may only be overridden by 2/3 lower house majority
4 Chile: A
2/3 upper house majority cannot be overridden.
If the originating chamber re-passes its bill with an absolute
majority, it may only be overridden by the revising chamber with
a 2/3 supermajority.
joint sitting can only be held after an emergency general election
caused by the dispute.
7 South Africa:
On regional issues, 2/3, following a joint committee. On federal
issues, normal majority, no joint committee.
Burundi, Slovenia: Can amend only, not reject bills.
ordinary lower house majority overrides, except where second chamber
vetoes a bill completely and by 2/3 majority, when 2/3 lower house
majority required to override.
If joint committee fails, but bill is approved by lower house,
it may vote it through in the next parliamentary session with
an absolute majority.
20. This kind of arrangement is particularly
common in presidential systems, making up 16 of the 21 cases.
Co-equality between the chambers is much less common in parliamentary
systems. In the five cases where this does apply (in addition
to the Lords' veto on Lords-initiated legislation) some caveats
should be noted. First, as already indicated, the German Bundesrat
has a veto over only around half of government bills. Second,
the Netherlands is likewise not a straightforward case, as here
the second chamber has no power to amend legislation, but can
only reject it. In practice this appears to be essentially a 'nuclear
option', used very rarely, and instead the threat of its use may
encourage the government and lower house to amend bills to meet
second chamber concerns.
Third, for Zimbabwe only limited information was available. This
leaves just two bicameral parliamentary systemsin Italy
and Switzerlandwhere an absolute second chamber veto power
definitely applies to all ordinary legislation, and may actually
be used. We see therefore that the House of Lords' power over
government bills initiating in the Lords is strong in international
21. In all other overseas cases, including in
the majority of parliamentary systems, there is some means for
second chamber objections to government legislation to be overridden.
Often, as in the UK on Commons-initiated bills, the second chamber
may simply be overridden by a vote in the first chamber sooner
or later. It is relatively common, however, for this to require
some kind of special majority. In seven cases an absolute majority
of first chamber members is needed to vote down second chamber
objections, and in another seven a 'supermajority' of first chamber
members (usually 66 per cent) is required. This can present serious
difficulties, since if the government controls less than two thirds
of lower house seats it may effectively face a permanent and universal
veto. For example in Japan there has been much instability in
recent years caused by second chamber vetoes, and it has become
necessary to form 'oversized majorities' (i.e. exceeding 50 per
cent of lower house votes) in order to ensure that the government
has a second chamber majority.
Hence for these countries as well, Nick Clegg's statement that
other countries 'perfectly manage asymmetry', and Lord Ashdown's
suggestion that lower house primacy is unchallenged, appear inaccurate.
22. Beyond these cases, there are nine countries
where resolution between the two chambers can only ultimately
be achieved through a joint sitting of the members of both. Generally
such an arrangement will favour the lower house, as it is the
norm (though not Britain) for second chambers to be significantly
smaller than first chambers. However in some cases an absolute
majority, or even a supermajority, at a joint sitting is required.
When compared with all of these examples, the House of Lords'
power over Commons-initiated legislation on the face of it looks
23. But although Table 2 gives a good initial
indication of elected second chamber powers, there are other factors
which it does not make visible. One, noted by the bracketed term
'JC', is that the resolution process between the chambers in many
countries includes deliberation by some kind of joint parliamentary
committee. These arrangements vary significantly, and are discussed
in a separate section below. The second factor, which is completely
invisible in Table 2, is the extent to which second chambers which
lack an absolute veto power can use the power of delay to exercise
influence. Table 3 therefore concentrates on those elected second
chambers where absolute veto power is lacking, showing the mechanism
by which disputes can be resolved, and the length of time for
which the second chamber may delay passage of a bill. Whereas
in Table 2 the UK's powers over Commons bills looked relatively
weak in comparative terms, this table makes the picture appear
rather different, with the House of Lords at the 'stronger' end
of the spectrum.
24. The first row in the table is not directly
comparable with the rest, as it does not represent a specific
time period, but a mechanism. Here a bill may pass without second
chamber support, but only in a new parliamentary session. This
is the mechanism that applies in the UK. The Parliament Acts require
that a bill objected to by the Lords (and where the Commons is
not prepared to compromise) must be reintroduced in the next session,
with at least 12 months having elapsed since its initial Commons
second reading. The Lords' delay power is often summarised as
being 'around a year', but in practice it may vary substantially:
from much less than a year following the Lords' intervention (if
the bill was introduced in the Commons early in a session, and
reached the Lords late)
to much more than a year (particularly in a long parliamentary
session, such as the current session 2010-12).
25. A similar mechanism is set out in the constitution
of Afghanistan, which states simply that a rejected bill may be
approved by the lower house alone 'in the next session'. Better
known, and far tougher, is the arrangement in Australia, where
ultimate resolution of disputes requires an extraordinary 'double
dissolution' of both chambers of parliament, followed by fresh
elections to both. If this is insufficient to resolve the dispute,
a joint sitting may subsequently be held. This sets a very high
political price for governments wishing to resolve an intractable
intercameral dispute. There have been six such double dissolutions
since 1900, followed in only one case by a joint sitting.
26. In most cases in the table the mechanism
for resolving disputes is more straightforward. In several, the
constitution specifies some kind of minimum delay period which
the second chamber may impose to disrupt legislation. But this
delay period is often short. For example in Poland (although the
chamber is directly elected, and the system presidential) the
constitution states that the second chamber has only 30 days to
consider legislation. If a bill is not passed within this period,
it is taken as approved. If the second chamber raises objections
within the 30 day period, these may be immediately overridden
by an absolute majority in the lower house. In cases such as this
the delay power of the second chamber is clearly far less than
that enjoyed by the House of Lords. There are various similar
examples, and others where no delay period at all is specified
in the constitution (though some of these chambers in practice
may get longer to consider legislation than Poland's 30 days).
Only in India does the constitution specify a delay power of more
than six months (after which a dispute can be resolved in a joint
sitting), and in Thailand the delay period is slightly shorter,
at 180 days.
27. Thus, although a House of Lords' veto may
be overridden by a simple majority in the House of Commons, the
chamber's potential to disrupt government legislation (even when
introduced in the Commons) is relatively high compared to many
parliamentary systems. A substantial delay power, of a kind enjoyed
by the House of Lords and the second chambers of India and Thailand,
is nonetheless a far more flexible weapon than the first chamber
supermajorities required in countries such as Japan. A delay mechanism
requires the first chamber to reflect, and allows time for public
and media debate on the disputed issues in the bill. But if on
reflection the first chamber and the government wish to proceed,
they ultimately can.Table
3: Delay powers of elected second chambers without absolute veto
(plus UK for comparison)
|Delay until next session (actual time varies)
||UK (Commons bills)(unelected)
|Delay of 6+ months
||India (6 months)
|Delay of 2-6 months
||Pakistan (90 days)
|Thailand (180 days) (JC)
||Ireland (90 days)
Spain (2 mths)1
|Delay of up to 2 months
||Romania (45 days) (JC)
||Belarus (20 days)(JC)
Burundi (30 days)(JC)2
Germany (6 weeks)(JC)3
Japan (60 days)(JC)
Russia (14 days)(JC)
|Austria (8 weeks)
Poland (30 days)
|Belgium (60 days)2
|Override available immediately (or no period specified)
As above, italics denote wholly or mostly indirectly
elected, others wholly or mostly directly elected.
Bold denotes presidential countries, others are
JC = joint committee included within the conciliation
process (see below for discussion).
* Based on limited information.
** For full details see previous table.
Excluded countries: as above, plus Ethiopia. NB
Germany included even though it has a veto on some bills.
1 Spain: Amendments overridden immediately
by normal majority; vetoes overridden absolute majority, or normal
majority after 2 months.
2 Belgium, Burundi, Slovenia: Can amend only,
not reject bills.
3 Germany: Second chamber can veto completely
on regional issues. On others, a 2/3 upper house majority may
only be overridden by 2/3 lower house majority (or normal majority
by normal majority).
4 Namibia: ordinary lower house majority
overrides, except where second chamber vetoes a bill completely
and by 2/3 majority, when 2/3 lower house majority required to
5 South Africa: On regional issues, 2/3, following
a joint committee. On federal issues, normal majority, no joint
28. Of course, a key question is not only what
formal powers are enjoyed by a second chamber, but the extent
to which these are in practice actually used. The House of Lords
has over the past century not used its powers to anything like
their full potential, largely because of the evident 'illegitimacy'
of its membership (particularly when this was largely hereditary,
As argued by the joint committee on conventions, this may well
change should the chamber's membership be reformed. In other bicameral
states, it is generally the party balance of the second chamber
with respect to the first which determines the level of conflict,
rather than concerns about legitimacy (though in cases like the
appointed Canadian Senate legitimacy is important). Where both
chambers are democratically elected, but differ in their partisan
composition, the second chamber is less likely to exercise restraint
over use of its powers, as some examples here testify. Hence many
parliamentary systems that 'perfectly manage asymmetry' in fact
do so through the second chamber having far more limited powers
than exist in the UK. In other cases, as already discussed, relations
are not always as harmonious as some contributors to recent debates
The use of joint committees to resolve intercameral
29. Before concluding, it is worth reflecting
briefly on one mechanism for resolving intercameral disputes which
is fairly alien in the UK context. That is, the use of joint parliamentary
committees to negotiate compromise between the chambers. As indicated
in Tables 2 and 3, this is fairly common in other bicameral parliaments.
Although not the main focus of this article (and a fairly complex
topic in its own right), it is hard to get a full picture of other
second chambers' powers without some indication of how these joint
30. In total, 19 of the 51 elected second chambers
discussed above include a joint committee in the resolution process.
Commonly such committees are made up of an equal number of members
from both chambers, and try to reach agreement on the more contentious
aspects of bills when the second chamber has raised objections.
These arrangements differ widely. Table 4 classifies joint committees
by just two aspects of their role in the process: how the committee
is created, and what happens after its deliberations.
31. It is first notable from the table that joint
committees are more common in presidential (14 cases) than parliamentary
(six cases) systems. Second, we see that joint committees are
most commonly established automatically after a dispute between
the chambers has reached a given stage. For example in Chile a
bill rejected by the second chamber is referred directly to a
joint committee, as is a bill amended by the second chamber if
these amendments have been rejected by the first chamber. Thus
there may either be a degree of 'ping-pong' between the chambers
before the joint committee is established, or it may come into
being very early on. In other countries creation of the committee
is not automatic, but instead at the discretion of the executive,
the second chamber, or both.
32. In systems where the second chamber enjoys
an absolute legislative veto, any proposals emerging from the
joint committee must of course be approved by both chambers. This
is the case in several presidential systems, but also in Switzerland
and Germany (on regional bills). In other cases, the first chamber
has the final say if the second chamber rejects the joint committee's
compromise (or if no such compromise was found). Here the second
chamber's role may be anything from relatively weak to relatively
strong. The table demonstrates presence of a 'French model', exported
to three other countries with strong French influence: here the
executive retains discretion not only to establish the joint committee,
but also to invite the first chamber to approve the legislation
alone if negotiations fail. This creates little incentive for
first chamber members to compromise. At the other end of the spectrum,
the second chamber's refusal to agree to a joint committee compromise
can only be overridden by a two thirds first chamber majority:
as in Russia, for example. This creates a far greater incentive
to listen to second chamber concerns, as does the 180 day delay
in Thailand. Other more unusual cases are indicated in the notes
to the table.
33. In looking to overseas experience to inform
debates on House of Lords reform, political actors in the UK might
therefore consider whether some kind of joint committee arrangement
for resolving intercameral disputes would be desirable. In designing
such a system, however, the devil is in the detail. As well as
the factors already indicated, in some cases, for example, the
committee may be restricted to dealing only with specific disputed
clauses, while in others it can find trade-offs in other parts
of the bill. In some, the joint committee's proposals may be presented
on a take-it-or-leave-it basis to the two chambers, and in others
may be amended. These kinds of details can be critical to how
such arrangements work.Table
4: Use of joint committees to resolve intercameral disputes where
second chamber elected (all cases)
|Procedure after committee ?
How committee created ?
|Equal approval by both chambers
||Lower chamber has final override
|Belarus (66 %)
Burundi (66 %)
Russia (66 %)
Thailand (after 180 days)
|Created at executive discretion
Morocco (abs. maj.)
|Created at request of second chamber
||South Africa (regional bills)3
Germany (other bills)
|Created at request of first or second chamber
|Created at request of executive, first or second chamber
||Germany (regional bills)
Italics denote wholly or mostly indirectly elected,
others wholly or mostly directly elected. Bold denotes presidential
countries, others are parliamentary.
*Based on limited information
if the joint committee agrees, the legislation passes straight
to the executive for enactment. If it cannot agree, the bill is
considered defeated but may be passed by the lower house alone
in the next parliamentary session.
if the joint committee is unable to produce an agreement approved
by both chambers, the matter is ` referred to a joint sitting
3 South Africa:
on other bills no joint committee applies, and first chamber can
overrule by normal majority.
34. This article has reviewed the basic patterns
of second chamber composition and powers internationally. It has
shown that bicameralism is common, in both parliamentary and presidential
systems. Elected second chambers are relatively more common in
presidential systems, in part due to US influence. But the composition
of second chambers varies widely, with indirectly elected, directly
elected and unelected members often serving (in both presidential
and parliamentary states) and with many chambers having a mixed
membership between these groups. Second chamber powers also vary
widely. In presidential systems relative 'coequality' or 'symmetry'
between the chambers is common, with the second chamber having
an absolute veto over all or most bills. This applies to many
directly elected second chambers, but also some which are indirectly
elected. In parliamentary systems it is more usual for there to
be a means of overriding second chamber objections to government
bills. Amongst this group, the existing powers of the House of
Lords are relatively strong, as it retains an absolute veto on
those government bills which start their passage in the House
of Lords, and a lengthy delay over bills which start in the House
35. Some of the statements which have been made
about the international practice of bicameralism during recent
UK debates on reform have been somewhat misleading. First, elected
second chambers are now common, but not as ubiquitous as some
contributors to these debates have suggested (particularly in
parliamentary systems). Second, the 'primacy' of the first chamber
is not recognised in those systems where the chambers share coequal
powers (particularly in presidential systems). Third, it is mistaken
to assume that relations are harmonious in other bicameral systems.
Powerful second chambers in other parliamentary systems, such
as those in Japan and Australia, have at times caused significant
aggravationthough this may not always be seen as a bad
thing. Finally, some bicameral arrangements are in fact far more
asymmetrical than those in the UK, with the second chamber having
only very limited powers. If the first chamber can override second
chamber concerns within a matter of a small number of days or
weeks, second chamber resistance may be only a minor irritation.
36. Having considered the information in this
article, two key questions for the UK reform debate remain. First,
to what extent would the House of Lords, if transformed into an
elected (or largely elected) chamber, make use of the substantial
powers that it has? This of course is unknown. In practice it
would be dependent on the extent of partisan conflict between
the chambers, as well as on how political culture develops over
time. The experience from other bicameral states suggests that
elected chambers generally feel free to use their powers to the
full, in a way that the House of Lords currently does not. So
the second critical question, which is perhaps even more difficult
than the first, is how powerful it is desirable for the reformed
British second chamber to be? Some would argue, and some argued
in the recent parliamentary debates, that it would be good for
British politics if the second chamber acted as a greater constraint
on government and the House of Commons. What this article has
demonstrated is that a reformed House of Lords left with its existing
powers, if it chose to use these more freely, would be one of
the more powerful such chambers amongst parliamentary democracies.
For examples of how this could change British politics reformers
might look to countries such as Australia, Germany, Italy, India,
Japan, Switzerland and Thailand.
24 October 2011
11 House of Lords Reform Draft Bill, Cm 8077, London:
The Stationery Office, May 2011. Back
For a discussion of some of the main controversies around Lords
reform see Russell, M. (2009), 'House of Lords Reform: Are We Nearly There Yet?' The Political Quarterly, 80(1), 119-25.
In a series of free votes the Commons voted for a wholly elected
chamber by 337 to 224, and for an 80% elected chamber by 305 to
267. However there are reasons to doubt the sincerity of these
votes: see House of Commons Hansard, 27 June 2011, column 677
(Stuart Bell) and column 679 (Paul Murphy). Back
Joint Committee on Conventions (2006), Conventions of the UK Parliament (London: Houses of Parliament).
Paragraph 61. Back
Evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee, question
217, 18 May 2011. Back
House of Lords Hansard, 21 June 2011, column 1198. Back
House of Commons Hansard, 27 June 2011, column 653. Back
Russell, M. (2000), Reforming the House of Lords: Lessons from Overseas, (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Back
Representatives in the Russian upper house are indirectly elected
by regional councils (see for example J. Henderson, The Constitution
of the Russian Federation: A Contextual Analysis, Oxford:
Hart, 2011, pp. 166-174). IPU classification therefore seems incongruous
with their treatment of other countries such as Germany and South
Described in T. Beck, G. Clarke, A. Groff, P. Keefer, and P. Walsh,
'New tools in comparative political economy: The Database of Political
Institutions' World Bank Economic Review 15 (1): 165-176,
2001. Data was from version updated December 2010, available at:
There are various definitions of 'presidentialism' and 'parliamentarism',
and also examples of systems which do not fit either model easily,
in particular the 'semi-presidentialism' seen in France and elsewhere,
where a directly elected president shares power with a prime minister
and cabinet dependent on the confidence of parliament. Rather
than coding for this somewhat contentious variable the classification
in the table is based on an existing dataset, with additions/amendments
as indicated in the notes. Back
I am grateful to Simon Kaye for doing much of the difficult information
gathering on this task. Back
'Options for the future of Seanad Éireann', in Second
Progress Report, The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the
Constitution, Dublin: The Stationery Office, 1997. Back
An example of lack of clarity is the Rwandan constitution, which
states that in the event of disagreement between the two chambers
a joint committee is established to negotiate a compromise, but
simply adds that '[i]n the event that the compromise decision
is not adopted by both Chambers the bill is returned to the initiator'
(Article 95). In the absence of any other readily available information
about Rwandan bicameralism, this has been assumed to mean a veto
power. It is accepted that such interpretation may be flawed in
some cases, and these cases are indicated in the tables with asterisks. Back
As described in G.T. Kurian (ed.), World Encyclopaedia of Parliaments
and Legislatures, Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly,
See for example Wall Street Journal, 14 December 2009,
'Japanese Coalition Frays', or for a longer discussion T. Ohta,
'One House Better Than Two?', 2 February 2010, at www.japaninc.com/node/4369 Back
As in the case of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, introduced
in the Commons in October 1997, amended by the Lords a year later,
but passed under the Parliament Acts in December 1998. Back
For a discussion of the extent to which the post-1999 House of
Lords is making greater use of its powers, see Russell, M. (2010), 'A Stronger Second Chamber? Assessing the Impact of House of Lords Reform in 1999, and the Lessons for Bicameralism', Political Studies, 58(5), 866-85. Back
For a slightly longer discussion of these issues, see Russell, M. (1999), Second Chambers: Resolving Deadlock (London: Constitution Unit). Back