In this age of political disengagement, democratic reform of the Lords is vital

After the next election, Lords reform will be back on the agenda. Will anyone mention it beforehand? They certainly should.

Dan Jellinek is a writer and journalist

The 30 new members of the House of Lords appointed by the prime minister – subject to ‘propriety’ vetting from the independent House of Lords Appointment Commission – together represent a good breadth of knowledge and skills.

The headlines have focused understandably on their names, including justice and equality campaigner Doreen Lawrence, a Labour selection; Conservative Chris Holmes, director of Paralympic Integration at London 2012; and Jenny Jones, former chair of the Green Party of England and Wales.

Less coverage, however, has been given to the wider constitutional implications of these appointments.

It was noted that 24 of the 30 will represent the coalition parties (14 Conservative, eight Labour); five will sit for Labour; and the single Green. All are political appointments, recommended by the party leaders and selected by the prime minister exercising the Royal Prerogative – independent or cross-bench peers are recommended by the appointments commission itself, at a much slower rate (two new cross-bench appointments were made in February; the previous two came in May 2012).

But the implications of 30 new political appointments to the second House are large, and serious, since the current trend for Lords appointment is, to put it charitably, unsustainable.

All new peers created are now life peers: they remain members for their lifetimes, but the title is not then inherited by their children. There are still 92 hereditary peers sitting as a leftover from incomplete past reforms, but at about 11 per cent of the current total of around 800, this is a small proportion and likely to be removed altogether as part of any future reforms.

The problem is that in recent years, each new prime minister has looked to create proportionately more peers from their own party, to align the political balance of the second chamber more closely with the Commons.

The current government, for example, created more than a hundred new peers – mostly former MPs – in its first year alone, in line with a coalition agreement that “Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election”.

But this situation cannot possibly continue: if every new government has to create so many new peers to change the balance, the number of peers will swell to a thousand and beyond in the not-too-distant future.

The role and function of the House of Lords revolves around detailed, meaningful policy debate, and already, with more active peers than ever before, debates are harder to manage. If a peer wants to table a written question to the government, they have to turn up an hour and a half before the deadline to beat the queues.

The current situation has not arisen through a lack of desire for Lords reform. Last year’s latest, failed attempt was, astonishingly, the third in the space of just 10 years. In both 2003 and 2007 the government offered MPs and peers a vote on all sorts of options, from fully appointed to fully elected.

Each time, no option gained general approval and most were massively rejected; and the 2012 attempt foundered after a backbench rebellion rejecting what the government saw as the option with the widest support: an 80 per cent elected house.

The major sticking point to agreement remains that of ‘primacy’. While some form of election to the House of Lords is favoured by most people, perhaps with longer election terms and different voting systems to the Commons, there are two big fears.

Any election system would mean the Lords would almost certainly become more politicised, thus losing some of their valued independence. But second, with greater democratic legitimacy, the concern is that the Lords would no longer feel it their place to back down on any issue on which the Commons insisted, with uncertain legal implications.

Where do we go from here?

Whatever happens, the special role and characteristics of the second chamber of Parliament – an ability to think long term, its independence and its collaborative nature – must not be lost.

The House of Lords must continue to be allowed to improve new laws; and it could have a greater role looking at possible new laws before they are even drawn up, or examining what happens to laws once they are passed.

Some favour the beefing up of the House of Lords Appointment Commission, with powers to make sure various professions – doctors, builders, bankers, spies – are represented in certain proportions to ensure a good range of experts and wise heads. More geographical mix may be needed, and the gender balance needs improvement too.

In policy circles, however, as an election approaches, the silence is deafening. In tough times, no-one wants to pick a new fight which seems unwinnable.

The problem is, this is an issue that will have to be faced again, like it or not. With the current position unsustainable, all parties must try to come up at the very least with a mechanism for reform whose findings they can feel able to support.

After the next election, Lords reform will be back on the agenda. Will anyone mention it beforehand? They certainly should. In this age of disengagement, democratic reform is vital, and ought to be conducted in the open.

NOTE: Article based partly on “People power: a user’s guide to democracy in the UK”, a new book by Dan Jellinek, out now from Transworld. Order from bookshops, search on Amazon or see www.danjellinek.com/people-power/

4 Responses to “In this age of political disengagement, democratic reform of the Lords is vital”

  1. Malden Capell

    I agree that reform of the Lords must be addressed. But the problem is that nobody seems prepared to embrace the inescapable conclusion that this reform cannot make it an elected chamber. It would simply violate the central tenet of our constitution that the people are supreme through the House of Commons.

  2. franwhi

    The SNP in Scotland are the one political party who dont send peers to the Lords as a matter of principal. Is that not the way to think about it in the longer term context. Political appointees could be eschewed in favour of a citizens forum which wouldnt preclude people like Doreen Lawrence but no more cash for honours thanks very much. Its not healthy to stuff Lords with wealthy donors. If we havd to have a second chamber at all it should be people who havd contributed more than money.

  3. Dan Jellinek

    Hi, Dan here – author of this blog post.
    Both comments so far make excellent points – this is why it is so hard, but a way must be found.
    Re your points Malden Capell, there are of course many countries with two chambers both elected in some way, and we do not actually have a constitution as such. But the primacy issue is a clear problem – best way through might be a completely different way of voting (maybe regional, certainly longer but once-only terms, and maybe the whole house up for re-election in rotational stages, all of which have been proposed).
    Re your point franwhi, again I think most would be in agreement that we need a house composed of people with strong and wide-ranging strengths and skills, and certainly not just party donors. The problem with completely removing both election and party nomination though is it might simply hide the party politics of it, rather than remove it – you would still have people in there who are strong party supporters, but how could you tell? It would also be hard to put former politicians in, and we might want at least a few of those for their knowledge of Parliament and government etc.
    In my opinion all these questions are soluble, with compromise – and better than just waiting for an even worse crisis. No outcome will be perfect, but then who or what is perfect? The idea would be to try and improve on the current system – or where it is heading…
    Dan Jellinek

  4. awilliams66

    Why does a democratic 2nd Chamber need to be elected, why not select a member to a revising chamber by lot from the electoral roll of each UK consituency to serve for a fixed period, but taking care to refresh a fifth of the membership per year so there is alway a mix of new and older members. This method has served us well in selecting Jurors and while it is not perfect it is definately better than any of the alternatives.

    It would fill the second chamber with a healthy cross-section of people from all walks of life with varied skills and experience, a mixture of expert and laymen that has served the judicial system well for centuries, while it has not always been perfect, it is just better than any other alternative.

    It could be said all a juror has to do is say “guilty” or not guilty”, just as a Lord only has to say “yea” or “nay”, but this is ignoring the fact that jurors review the evidence before them, often of a highly technical nature in complex cases of fraud or where scientific, forensic evidence is presented to them. Like our Lords, these jurors have experts to explain the details presented to them, and like our Lords it is up to their mix of laymen and expert judgement to make the decision to accept or reject such evidence.

    No Lord or Juror is an expert on everything but the range of experience, gender, class, skills and knowledge will be wider in a House of Jurors than in the either the current or oft proposed elected House and will be less susceptible to influence that MPs and Lords are and so will be far more independant.

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