Why reforming the House of Lords should be a priority

The House of Lords represents a long-standing paradox in the UK. Despite proudly proclaiming ourselves as the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy, we continue to grant significant powers to an unelected elite, some of whom are selected solely on the basis of their noble birth or religious affiliation. But whilst all three major political parties are officially committed to democratic reform of the upper house, achieving this goal any time soon remains an unlikely prospect…

The democratic deficit posed by the House of Lords has been a hotly debated topic since the early 20th century. Since then there has been a growing acceptance that whilst a chamber made up of noble and religious peers may have improved accountability in a medieval, feudal system, it has no place in a modern society founded on the principles of equality and justice. It is therefore somewhat baffling that non-hereditary peers only began to be appointed in 1958, allowing those who weren’t part of the nobility as well as women into the chamber. In fact, membership as a right of birth remained the norm right up until 1999, when the majority of hereditary peerages were finally abolished.

Yet these reforms have only slightly improved the democratic legitimacy of the Lords. While representation of the population at large may have improved slightly, the overwhelming majority of lords continue to be elderly, white males from the South-East. Furthermore, 90 hereditary peers remain, along with 26 Church of England Bishops, ignoring the other faiths in our society as well as the fact that less than 10% of British citizens continue to regularly attend church.

The system of political appointment by the main parties has also proved to be highly problematic, as highlighted by the ‘cash for peerages’ scandal in which some of those appointed had made significant donations to the governing Labour party. The fact that the House of Lords is increasingly serving as a ‘retirement home’ for ex-MPs further reduces its credibility and shows the absurdity of the current system. Despite having been voted out of office, some politicians are rewarded with a permanent seat in Parliament with some even taking ministerial positions. Perhaps most worryingly, the Lords is increasingly seen as subservient to the Commons, with political appointees more likely to toe the party line in order to placate those who put them in power.

The House of Lords’ recent rejection of proposals to reduce benefits for disabled children and cancer patients in the Welfare Reform Bill has emphasised the crucial role that it can play in curtailing the excesses of the Government. Yet this was a rare show of assertiveness.  In general the Lords is unwilling to challenge the government, largely because it is not elected and therefore does not have the same popular legitimacy as the House of Commons. This is why introducing democratic reform in the House of Lords would be so significant. It would improve the second chamber’s independence, allowing it to properly fulfil its role as a brake on the otherwise unfettered power of the executive.

Critics of reform have argued that an elected House of Lords would lose its current ‘quality’ and ‘expertise’. Yet this overlooks the fact that whilst the supposed experts in the house may have been an authority in their field 20 or 30 years ago, most have not kept up with current practice. Other part-time members who continue to work, such as Sir Alan Sugar, are too busy to really contribute. Significantly, critical expertise in cutting edge areas such as the internet cannot be provided by experts who were handpicked decades ago. In reality, embedded expertise can be provided more easily by advisory committees, as it tends to be in most other political systems. The most important attribute for the Lords is good judgement rather than specialist knowledge.

Others have suggested that elections would lead to a high degree of politicisation in the Lords, preventing it from scrutinising legislation in a neutral, non-partisan way and turning it into a mirror image of the Commons.  Whilst this is an important point, the fact is that the House is already highly politicised due to the fact that the majority of peers are currently appointed by political parties.  Also, measures such as having 15 year non-renewable terms should give a reformed House of Lords a more neutral, long-term perspective. In any case, having politicians subject to a popular vote is surely preferable to the current system in which political cronies and former MPs enter through the back-door.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument against House of Lords reform is that now is simply not the right time. With most people being preoccupied with economic concerns, constitutional change just isn’t on most people’s agenda.  Yet as recent events have shown, the truth is that in these times of austerity we need more than ever a second chamber strong enough to constrain an otherwise all-powerful executive. That sort of power will only exist if the Lords has the popular legitimacy bestowed on it by a transparent, democratic process.

London Student: Volume 32, Issue 7, January 2012

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