In the News

Best and worst of the Lords

Mike McCartney

14th December 2023

Two examples in the same day's newspaper serve as a good way in to discussing the old chestnut of reform of our upper chamber

The arguments for and against reforming the upper house have rumbled on for over more than a century, and look something like this.

Arguments in favour of reforming the Lords

  • Probably main argument is that the Lords as an institution is often viewed as elitist, unrepresentative of the general population (mostly old white men from privileged backgrounds), and overly conservative in outlook.
  • The hereditary element: a feature shared with only one other country. Lesotho; which has 22 tribal chiefs in its Senate.
  • Empirical evidence: The only other country in the world that is composed of entirely non-elected members is the Canadian Senate – itself modelled on the House of Lords. Surely that must tell you something?
  • Legitimacy: An elected chamber would be more be more confident of its role in the political process, thus a stronger bulwark against the over-mighty Commons.
  • Public demand: opinion polls consistently show 2/3 and above favour some elected element.
  • Representation: employing a PR based voting system would enable a more accurate portrayal of support for smaller parties in our national legislature (think UKIP 2010).
  • Unfinished business: after the ejection of all but 92 hereditaries, and the decamping of the Law Lords to the Supreme Court, the Lords sits untidily and contains a number of anomalies.
  • Sleaze: the upper house of Parliament is no different form other legislatures in being stained by allegations of corruption, but at least those other legislators can be voted out.
  • But without trying to defend the indefensible, we should also consider the arguments of those in favour of preserving the status quo.

Arguments against reforming the Lords

  • The current chamber works well. It is the most active chamber in the world. It sits for longer and meets more frequently than any other: Since 1999 the Lords has proved to be a useful check on the executive dominated Commons. See Meg Russell's research on this.
  • Much of its output in terms of reports produced on a variety of issues are highly respected.
  • It provides an antidote to the lower house as it provides the opportunity to create a chamber which contains people who have experience of something other than professional politics. A chamber with mostly appointed rather than elected legislators is not without its advantages.
  • Legislative gridlock would occur. An elected chamber, granted a new sense of legitimacy would see no need to bow to the Commons.
  • Problems of election excess. There are nearly 1,000 elected office holders above local level in the UK. Do we really need any more?
  • On a related note, this raises concerns about the (low) quality of the new legislators – would it be stocked full of the ‘has beens’ and ‘never weres’.
  • As with a clutch of other potential reforms to the constitution, there is no real public appetite for reform.
  • Another problem in common with other constitutional reform proposals is the lack of consensus on the issue. Size, method and timing of elections, etc.
  • Introducing elections would be no panacea. Voters in countries with elected second chambers, such as the USA, are not over the moon with the job they perform.

Looking at the arguments against, the issue of sleaze has raised its head again. Historically, sleaze has been associated with the appointments process. For example, during the Blair premiership the ‘Cash for honours’ debacle in the mid noughties demonstrated in Technicolor that the appointments process is corrupt. There have also been accusations that political favours can be bought from our MPs with a promise in the Lords, e.g. in the Brown era, so just a couple of years after the cash for honours scandal, Keith Vaz was said to have had the prospect of being draped in ermine dangled in front of him on the eve of the 42 day detention vote in the Commons. So it is argued that only a fully elected chamber will ensure that what Billy Bragg once called the ‘stench of impropriety’ can be cleared from the air.

But, in recent years there has been a slightly different spin on this with regards to former Tory peer, Michelle Mone. As the Guardian reports:

"The former Conservative peer Michelle Mone is facing a criminal allegation of bribery as part of a long-running investigation by the National Crime Agency into her involvement with a company that secured multimillion-pound government PPE contracts from the government."

And with regards to the case for the defence of the House of Lords, a new report came out form its education committee calling for an overhaul of teaching and learning in England's secondary schools. The Guardian, hardly a fan of the House of Lords, agreed with the report's findings, saying in an editorial that:

"This week’s House of Lords report on 11-16 education will make awkward reading for the government – not least because the committee’s chair, Jo Johnson, is a former minister and the former prime minister’s brother. But MPs and others with an interest in secondary education should consider it carefully. Its account of how schools lost their bounce is convincing."

Question for discussion

Looking at the above and your own knowledge, do you agree that it is possible to reform the Lords without completely destroying many of its qualities as a second chamber??

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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