The time is right for Lords reform

Is the current House of Lords an outdated institution?

Last Wednesday, the Queen read out only the second Queen’s speech of this government, after a remarkably long first session of parliament starting in 2010. The list of bills the government is legislating for was also short compared to the number we have got used to over the past few decades: just fifteen pieces of legislation were announced. One of these pieces of legislation was also read out by the Queen’s grandfather in the early 1900s: House of Lords reform. Back then, like now, it was liberals pushing for elections to the upper chamber, so this is no passing fancy of my party; we’ve been at the Lords ever since Lloyd-George passed the Parliament Act in 1911, limiting the Lords’ powers. The difference in 2012 is that all three major parties put House of Lords reform in their manifestos and, in the 2010 coalition agreement, my party and the Conservatives agreed that this government would proceed with it.

As we all know, promises in politics are worth less than the paper they are written on, and Tories are already lining up to stop Lords reform, while Labour are coming up with complex reasons why they can’t actively support it and so hence they are obliged to cause an embarrassing defeat to the government, rather than sticking to their principles and manifesto. In this article, I will attempt to make a brief case for Lords reform.

Anyone who wants to make any major constitutional reform has got to answer three key questions: why does it need reforming?, how does it need reforming? and is now the right time to do it?. These questions have, of course, been answered negatively already by many of the critics of House of Lords reform. They claim that the House of Lords is packed full of experts and works well, they claim that reforming it so that they are elected will stuff the House of Lords with career politicians and challenge the House of Commons’ primacy and, most of all, they use the argument that the economy is too important for this government to be fussing over Lords reform at a time like this. While answering the three questions I have set myself I will deal with these counter-arguments.

Why does it need reforming? The current House of Lords is an archaic relic, combining a system of hereditary peers, that we share with only Lesotho, with peers who are appointed by the leaders of our main three political parties, a system we share with a handful of countries such as Belize, Jordan and Burkina Faso. We also have our own quirk of 26 bishops who automatically get a seat, including our very own Bishop of Durham. This matters because our second chamber should be scrutinising and amending legislation with the best will of the people in mind; in reality, the second chamber is stuffed full of ex-party donors, ex-MPs and ex-advisors to political parties. These aren’t any ex-MPs either, they are MPs that followed their party line in the Commons, rarely rebelling and so earned the patronage of the elite of their party and a seat for life in the House of Lords.

There is a myth that the House of Lords is packed full of experts; out of the over seven hundred peers, only about 150 of them are independent experts and half of them turn up very rarely. There are currently a handful of peers who can’t attend because they are serving jail sentences; of course, once they are out, they can return to the House of Lords. In order for governments to keep control of the House of Lords, since most of the hereditary peers were kicked out by New Labour in late 1999, they have had to keep appointing more and more peers that are ex-party hacks and will tow their party line. New Labour appointed hundreds of these and as a result the current coalition is appointing hundreds of its own in order to get things passed.

How does it need reforming? We are proposing a second chamber that is elected using a proportionally representative system (ideally Single Transferable Vote, but we will compromise and accept any other form), electing from regions of the UK (like the North-East, London, etc.) and electing around three hundred peers for fifteen-year terms. These terms will be non-renewable and a third of the Lords will come up for election every 5 years, allowing the composition of the house to change slowly, while also giving the house a different, more long-term look on legislation than the House of Commons. We (Liberal Democrats) ideally wanted 100% elected, but we have compromised and said we will accept 80% of these peers being elected and 20% being appointed as experts by an independent commission. So a greater proportion of the votes in the new second chamber would be independent experts than now and the actual number, sixty, would be about the same as the number that turns up to debates in the House of Lords now!

Crucially, the Parliament Act will remain in force over the Lords, and the Lords will gain no new extra powers. The argument that the Lords will fight the Commons for primacy is nonsense; they will have the same relationship as now. The Lords will just be more capable of scrutinising effectively, it will have a public mandate, it will reflect the public’s views and it will have a different perspective to the Commons. If you are worried that the fifteen-year terms will be undemocratic, then do not be worried: the Parliament Act means that if the Commons really cares about a Bill that the second chamber keeps rejecting, the House of Commons can force it through anyway, ignoring the second chamber eventually.

Why is now the right time to do it? This Queen’s speech actually contains remarkably few bills and parliament is easily capable of getting through them. In fact, it will take less than a month to pass Lords reform if all the parties MPs stick to their parties’ manifestos and vote for it. Even if, by chance, the right-wing of the Tory party and the selfishness of the Labour party conspire to slow down Lords reform in an attempt to embarrass the government and cause a fight, Lords reform will still not affect the big issue of the day: the economy. Measures relating to the economy are almost all under the power of Chancellor of the Exchequer, anyway; he does not need to take up Commons time to proceed. Parliament can do more than one thing at once and it will be doing much less than usual over the next two years, so it can handle this.

Of course nothing is this simple; there are still arguments on the opposing side to be made; they just can’t be dealt with in a relatively short article. I believe, however, that the case for House of Lords reform is clear. It is an institution that has needed reforming for a century and we are the only country left in the Western world that uses such a system. The House of Lords is currently an ineffective, out-of-touch (there are more Lords over 90 years old than under 40) and undemocratic body. This is a historic chance to solve this problem once and for all, moving Britain towards a constitutional arrangement fit for the twenty-first century.

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