Manifesto: House of Lords Reform

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Photograph courtesy of
Following the failure of Nick Clegg's House of Lords reform bill you'd be forgiven for thinking that changes to the upper chamber were off the table for at least the lifetime of this parliament and quite possibly the next. Recent revelations, however, have made reform seem a more likely possibility. Allegations by Lord Hanningfield that many peers are claiming their daily expenses without contributing to parliament's work embodies the major problem with the Lords, incomplete reform. What's the solution? An elected house? Complete abolition? Nothing so radical, a much more modest change is necessary, since the upper house works well as it is.

Lords reform is currently unfinished and has been since the early years of the Blair government. A majority of the hereditary peers were removed in 1999, with 92 remaining as a temporary measure to ensure future reform. This reform, intended to be a majority elected house, never materialised, due to lack of enthusiasm from Blair and disagreements in the Labour Party about what needed to be done.

Initially, this change was not welcomed, people feared the Lords would become a house of Tony’s cronies, surprisingly it had the opposite effect. Prior to 1999 the Lords was an anachronism, a legislative chamber where at least half of members were there by an accident of birth; few expected the lords to change significantly, but it did. The upper chamber transformed into a meaningful and substantial check on government, watering down controversial legislation (Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006) or preventing it all together (90-day detention without charge for terrorist suspects).

Why is an elected Lord a bad idea? I won't suggest that an elected Lords would be more likely to vote along party lines, since currently Lords are less likely to rebel than MPs. An elected Lords, however, would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons. Members chosen by proportional representation in the upper house would be more representative than the MPs elected by First-Past-the-Post in the Commons, causing potential problems for a house that only retains a delaying veto. Significantly, a large amount of expertise would be lost as experts are less likely to run in elections, losing the ability for the Lords to make necessary changes to legislation. Former doctors, for example, would be unable to contribute to medical legislation. Finally, an elected Lords would be a great expense; since peers do not currently collect a salary where as elected politicians would be paid.

Lord Steel has presented his bill four times
Photo courtesy of Steve Punter
What reform can preserve these features whilst improving the current situation? Lord Steel, the former Liberal leader, proposed a bill several times, potentially solving the major problems with the House of Lords. Importantly, it places a cap on numbers, set a mandatory retirement age and remove lords who fail to turn up to debates. It would go some way to stopping peers turning up just to collect expenses and prevent the likes of Conrad Black and Jeffrey Archer from continuing to retain their places despite criminal convictions; in an attempt to complete the process of Lords reform started 15 years ago.

Lord Steel's bill goes further, proposing to remove the remaining hereditary peers, suggesting ending the internal by-election to replace the hereditaries when they die. A simpler way would be granting the hereditaries life peerages and then abolishing the right of hereditary peers to sit in the Lords completely. Two hereditary peers holding the offices of Earl Marshall and Lord Great Chamberlain can remain in the House of Lords to perform ceremonial functions provided they have no say over legislative matters. Removing the last of these would allow hereditary titles to be maintained as part of the honours system, as they would no longer be entitled to a seat in the upper house. These 90 places could possibly become an elected element of the lords, appeasing those that would like elected politicians in the upper house. 

The final change would be to increase the power of the House of Lords appointment commission. Currently the commission recommends non-partisan life peers to join the crossbench group of the Lords, but the Prime Minister still proposes partisan nominations, with the commission providing oversight. The commission should be given the power to make all appointments with party leaders only providing recommendations, subject to approval; which would take away the perception that party leaders fill the lords with ex-politicians and party donors (Tony's cronies). The commission should also set the numbers of peers from each party to prevent the current situation of the Prime Minister creating large numbers peers to make the lords represent share of the vote from the last election, a process that would take the number of peers above 1000. This number should ensure a hung house, encouraging cooperation between parties. 

The ability for peers to retire and the exclusion of peers for non-attendance and criminal convictions have finally been adopted by Dan Byles, Conservative MP for North Warwickshire, in a government backed private members bill and may become law later this year. This is a step in the right direction, however these changes should be the seen as the first step to completing the reform process and not the final stage. The reforms listed above are a future possibility for the Lords, whilst avoiding the issues an elected house would bring, making the great house even greater and fit for the next 100 years.
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