Teaching resources & approaches

Good video from Ch4 on the House of Lords

Mike McCartney

21st February 2022

Not brand new, but I've just found it

The arguments for and against the House of Lords are below.

Have a look at them after watching the video.

Probably the most common argument against the House of Lords is that it has no place in a modern democracy. The only other country in the world where membership of the legislature is based on birthright is Lesotho. The most recent reforms cutting the number of hereditaries do not make it a whit more democratic. As Tom Paine argued as long ago as 1791: "The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, as hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; as absurd as an hereditary Poet Laureate." Then there is the idea that an elected chamber would be a more effective check on the executive dominated Commons. The Lords can only exercise a temporary veto, and even then, as work by Meg Russell illustrates, often the Lords pull back from a full challenge because they fear they lack legitimacy. If it was elected using a system of proportional representation the Lords could be said to more accurately represent the wishes of the people, and would allow small parties to have more influence on the legislative process. Although it isn’t necessarily top of a voter’s wish list at election time, when asked the public do back reform; opinion polls indicate that about two-thirds want a primarily or wholly elected chamber. Lastly, an elected chamber could incorporate regional representation on a federal basis, as for Germany’s upper house. The current chamber sits in limbo as a half-way house after Labour’s last attempt at reform in 1999. After having left the EU in an attempt to restore the sovereignty of Parliament, If there was ever a time to reform the Lords it would be now.

So trying to defend the status quo you would be trying to defend the indefensible.

But against this, 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. Russell argues in “The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived” that since the 1999 reforms (which as students will know were initiated by the Blair government, and involved a compromise decision to leave all but 92 of the 700-plus members who held their place as a right of birth) the Lords has become a thorn in the side of successive governments (of whatever colour/s), and can no longer therefore be regarded as a weak institution. The statistical evidence Russell provides backs this up. Blair and Brown collectively suffered over 450 defeats. Yes the Commons has primacy over the Lords and can overturn these defeats, but most are not. There are also many behind the scenes compromises which involve changes to legislation in the Commons, and this has effected changes in the way ministers and civil servants compose bills. Furthermore, she argued, it is unfair to think of it as a bastion of conservatism. As an example the Lords voted to support the Gay Marriage Bill (essentially by rejecting an amendment to wreck it) by a massive majority of 242 votes. Contrast this with a vote before the 1999 reforms took place which voted against a bill to equalise the age of consent (for straight and homosexual couples) by 222 to 146.

Mike McCartney

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

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