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In the News

House of Lords reform debated again

Mike McCartney

14th April 2023

The old chestnut of what do with the UK's second chamber was front page news this week

House of Lords reform is, of course, as well as being an old chestnut, is a frequent topic on exam papers.

The arguments for and against reform go 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 a front page story in the Guardian this week relates to the three points against reform I have place in bold above.

According to the paper:

"The House of Lords needs more independent, expert peers, the lord speaker has warned, amid growing controversy over plans by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss to pack the chamber with dozens of political allies and donors.

John McFall stressed he was making no direct criticism of recent peerage choices, given his neutral role, but he told the Guardian that the upper house was in danger of becoming “out of sync” with its balance of legislators.

A Lords too full of politicians and former political aides, rather than people with outside expertise, risked jeopardising the chamber’s crucial role in taking a broader view on legislation and wider national policy, said Lord McFall."

Lord McFall is essentially echoing a point that many constitutional experts have made. The Lords does a pretty good job as a second chamber, especially given the stresses on members of the other place. MPs spend a great deal of time dealing with constituency business, and this is one of the reasons that bills leave the Commons in a bit of a mess. So there is a need for experts in their field to closely scrutinise bills in an attempt to ensure that they will make good pieces of legislation.

There is a very strong case for tidying up the Lords in the short term before even considering the complexities of a more radical overhaul of the current arrangements. These interim moves could include, for example, getting rid of the last of the hereditary peers, trimming its overall size, and putting clearer rules in place for future appointments so that they were baaed on merit, rather than a rewards system used by Number 10 to appease, placate, and bribe supporters. Indeed, once that was done, there could even be a case for not proceeding with further wholesale reforms (by, for example, introducing an elected element, or strengthening its powers) that would potentially endanger the UK's constitutional balance.

Mike McCartney

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

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