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House of Lords on the front page this weekend

Mike McCartney

22nd March 2021

Yesterday's Sunday Times devoted its front page to an in-depth report on the hereditary peers

If you have access through the paywall, it is well worth a read. As a reminder on House of Lords reform:

The following points could be used to support the case for a primarily or fully elected second chamber.

  • Probably the most common argument against the House of Lords is that it is place in a modern democracy is indefensible. 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."
  • The only other fully non-elected chamber is the Canadian Senate – here also there have been questions raised about its democratic legitimacy.
  • 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.
  • The public back reform. Opinion polls indicate that about two-thirds want a primarily or wholly elected chamber.
  • An elected chamber could incorporate regional representation on a federal basis, as for Germany’s upper house.
  • The ‘Cash for honours’ debacle demonstrated in Technicolor that the appointments process is corrupt.
  • 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.

The following points could be used to support the case against a primarily or fully elected second chamber.

  • 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. It has defeated the government hundreds of times since the bulk of the hereditaries were ejected, including plans to curtail civil liberties.
  • The work of its committees is highly respected. The European Committee’s reports are read all throughout Europe and their suggestions are often debated in the European Parliament.
  • A chamber with mostly appointed rather than elected legislators is not without its advantages. 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.
  • The current chamber more closely mirrors the popular vote at the last general election than the Commons, so why do we need elections?
  • Legislative gridlock would occur. An elected chamber, granted a new sense of legitimacy would see no need to bow to the Commons.
  • Alternatively, the introduction of a large elected element may take place alongside a neutering of the chamber’s power.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.

The Sunday Times yesterday focused in much more detail on the 85 hereditaries who currently occupy the upper house.

Don't think I am breaking copyright by highlighting a few key points:

  • They claim more expenses than life peers.
  • They attend less.
  • The are even less representative of the voting public than the rest of the chamber in social background.
  • They take up more of the house than do peers representing the minor parties.
  • They are self-interested, with the majority of questions raised being issues that personally affect them.

And as the editorial argues:

"There is an absurd anachronism at the heart of democracy in this country, which our report exposes today. It is in the dozens of hereditary peers still sitting in the House of Lords, long after they were supposed to be abolished. These hereditary peers, who owe their right to sit in the Lords to gifts handed out to their ancestors by kings, queens and prime ministers, account for more than one tenth of the voting members of the upper chamber."

Might make decent intro to a House of Lords essay??

Mike McCartney

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

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