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Can the House of Lords act as an effective check on government?

Mike McCartney

6th March 2024

The defeat of the government's Rwanda asylum bill would suggest that it can

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.

So with reference to the case against reform, and in particular the point listed in bold above, we have the recent case of the multiple defeats of the significant defeats by the Lords of the current government's plans to deport asylum seekers.

The Guardian reported:

"Rishi Sunak has suffered his heaviest defeat in the House of Lords after the archbishop of Canterbury and former Conservative ministers joined forces with the opposition to force through five amendments to the Rwandan deportation bill.

The string of government setbacks, most passed by unusually large margins of about 100 votes, means the legislation, which aims to clear the way to send asylum seekers on a one-way flight to Kigali, will have to go back to the Commons.

The prime minister has previously warned the unelected chamber against frustrating the “will of the people” by hampering the passage of his safety of Rwanda (asylum and immigration) bill, which has been approved by MPs.

Sunak has made “stopping the boats” a key pledge of his leadership. However, he has been hit by several setbacks including the bill being challenged in the courts. Last week, official auditors said it will cost £1.8m to send each of 300 migrants to Rwanda."

The Lords have only a temporary veto of course, but the government is running out of time in its back and forth between the Commons and the Lords with the clock ticking down to an election at some stage within the next year.

Mike McCartney

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

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