Lords reform: a decision for the public?

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The idea of reforming the House of Lords is not new. The most significant Lords reform took place under Tony Blair and New Labour, when all but 92 hereditary peers were removed. However, rhetoric has exceeded action on all sides around this issue ever since. Gordon Brown’s government pledged within their 2005 election manifesto to remove the last 92 hereditary peers, though he did not. The coalition agreement towards an elected House collapsed after the Lib Dems faced difficulty reaching a compromise with the Conservatives. Only recently, Ed Miliband announced Labour’s plans for the Lords to be replaced by an elected ‘senate’, placing much more emphasis on having a more varied membership based on regional factors. Is anything likely to come of it this time?

The main argument against the House of Lords as it stands today is that the institution is seen to be undemocratic. Peers are appointed, not elected. They are therefore not directly accountable to the voters. This calls into question the legitimacy of the chamber. Additionally, once a person has been granted a peerage, they are a Lord or Baroness for life. They may not be voted out at the next General Election. Some commentators feel that this means the members of the chamber are not representative of the public.

More recently, the regional origin of members of the Lords has come under closer scrutiny. The perceived under representation of Northern England has been much more heavily debated after David Cameron reignited discussions about regional assemblies and the West Lothian question, following the Scottish referendum. Lords membership favours London and the South East. Milliband told a conference in Blackpool at the end of October that the upper chamber “fails to represent large parts of the UK”. He highlighted that the North West has almost as large a population as London, yet London has five times as many members in the Lords.

Opinion polls tend to show that the public wants House of Lords reform. A 2012 YouGov poll, commissioned by Unlock Democracy, found that 69% of respondents favoured a partly elected House of Lords. Of these, 33% favoured a wholly elected House. However, public opinion was not strong enough to stop the Conservatives from veering away from their agreement with the Liberal Democrats for reform.

There are also convincing arguments as to why the second chamber should not be subject to radical changes. The House of Lords is subordinate to the House of Commons. Should the House of Lords be fully elected, as pushed for by the Liberal Democrats and more recently by Labour’s proposed reforms, the two Houses face a dilemma. If they are both elected chambers, they would, theoretically, hold equal legitimacy to implement policy. However, within the legislative framework, the Commons may override the House. So which House would be subordinate in the event that they hold equal legitimacy? Baroness Boothroyd herself expressed concerns that the Lords would become a “second-rate version of the House of Commons”.

Furthermore, the House of Lords is largely made up of experts and specialists in particular fields. The House of Commons frequently comes under criticism on the basis of being full of ‘career politicians’. The Lords is a counter balance to this. If you search the ‘Members of the Lords’ section of the government’s website, you will find that many have established careers and interests, and membership of associations and charitable organisations, which is not nearly as prevalent amongst members of the Commons. There are 175 peers who serve as crossbenchers, i.e. they are not strongly aligned to a party and therefore are not subject to the whip in the way members of the Commons are. Even in the event that they do represent a party, whips are much less influential in the Lords. Peers largely act on what they actually think and provide perspectives on legislation others may fail too on the basis they must ‘toe the party line’.

There are strong arguments on both sides of the debate. A wholly elected House may cause substantial issues. Abolition would similarly be a large loss to the British political system. Before making a decision that will significantly alter the composition of the UK constitution for centuries to come, politicians need to be sure of the priorities of the public and do the best they can to reflect this.

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