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/

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.