Recent months have seen repeated calls for reform of the House of Lords. This is not a new idea. Calls for reform go back at least a century. The Blair government began what they hoped to be a thorough process of reform when they removed the automatic link between hereditary peerages and a seat in the Lords, while the cause has more recently been spearheaded by the Liberal Democrats during the coalition government. But recent attempts to further reform have not been successful, primarily because of a Conservative resurgence, so the ‘Sewel affair’ was something of an eye opener for many people.
I doubt any of us would want to be judged by the worst thing we have ever done, but Lord Sewel’s very public mistakes cast a shadow over the upper house, lending fuel to the fires of all those who hold it to be an outdated remnant of an undemocratic, patriarchal era. Of course, you can use prostitutes and still be able to contribute positively to society – the two are not mutually exclusive. Lord Sewel’s choices did not inherently make him unsuitable for government, but they did highlight wider issues about the appointment and accountability of our upper house.
The Electoral Reform Society, and many people on the left of the political landscape argue in favour of a directly elected upper chamber, using some form of STV. Others have argued that the Lords should be constituted based on the proportion of votes cast for each party in the General Election. The consensus is that an appointed upper house is filled with governmental cronies who do the bidding of the political establishment (when they do anything at all). Yet it is hard to see how a house which is elected to match the votes cast in the lower house would be any less under the thumb of the government.
In fact, I would argue that there is a strong case to be made for an unelected upper chamber. Clear evidence for this was seen in the recent debate surrounding the Conservative Tax Credits bill. The government was keen to push through reforms to the Tax Credit system, despite opposition from the electorate, civil society organisations and think tanks, which opposed them due to the damage they would do to the least well off in our society. The Lords, which was not packed with Conservatives, voted down the bill, leading the Tories to call for the house to be reformed. One cannot help noting a certain irony to this, given that, in 2012 the Conservatives blocked the Lib Dem’s thorough-going House of Lords Reform Bill, which would have resulted in a much smaller, and mainly elected upper chamber; had those proposals been passed, the outcome of the Tax Credit bill might have been rather different.
The fundamental issue at stake here is the purpose of the upper house. I contend that it is of most use as an oversight house, as a foil to the fickle changes in opinion seen in the Commons, and as a representative of the world outside politics. And that is why I favour an appointed house. An appointed house changes more slowly, as it takes time for old appointments to change. There is certainly no danger of all the Lords being replaced over night once every five years, and this means that a properly regulated house cannot swing from one political extreme to the other. It is not necessarily made up of career politicians, but of people who have made a wide range of contributions to public life. Furthermore, its members need not cow-tow to the will of the government, as loss of party support does not automatically result int he loss of a seat at the next election. Since members do not need to stand for re-election, they can take positions less popular in the short term, but quite possibly better in the long turn.
Some people would argue such a system is undemocratic, but it is simply a less direct form of representative democracy. We elect members of parliament to the house of Commons, and the leader of the winning party is then empowered to appoint people to the Lords. The question, however, is how to regulate appointments to prevent problems. This, I would argue, is where reform is desperately needed.
First and foremost, the upper house is too large. Each successive government is keen to consolidate power, appointing new Lords faster than sitting members die or resign (an option since 2014). David Cameron appointed more peers in his first term in office than any of his predecessors, and this attitude is simply unsustainable. The first step in reform must therefore be an immediate moratorium on all new appointments to the upper house (with the exception of replacing Lords Spiritual, on which I will say more in due course). That will prevent further expansion, however it is generally accepted that, with 820 eligible members, the Lords is too large to function effectively. Some people have argued in favour of a house of 650 to match the Commons. However, the Commons number is set to allow a decent number of constituencies to represent the people. This is not needed in a house not built on constituencies (although we do want to maximise expertise), so I would favour a figure not higher than 500.
This raises the obvious question of how such a reduction is pursued. First of all, Lords can now retire, so we could just wait it out. This is, however, a clumsy option. Conversely, removing peerages is unlikely to engender positive feelings. I therefore propose that the Lords who vote least frequently have their voting rights removed, leaving only the 500 most active Lords with voting rights. Those non-voting Lords would maintain their title, and could sit on committees or contribute to debates, if formally invited to do so by one of their voting colleagues. This would allow their expertise to be maintained whilst bringing regular sittings of the chamber down to a reasonable size. Indeed I would allow the government to appoint further non-voting peers (who could be promoted to voting status when vacancies arose), to maximise the expertise of the upper house and allow the government some patronage power.
The turnover, however, is still low. Mechanism should therefore be established allowing the removal of a peer in exceptional circumstances (though these should be controlled to prevent abuse), or in cases of non-involvement. Membership should be reviewed every ten years by an independent commission.
The next question is what the ideal make-up of the house should be. I have an inclination towards an entirely cross-bench house, however that seems unrealistic. So instead, I propose that membership gradually moves towards a make-up where no more than 50% of voting peers (i.e.250 people ) are affiliated to the party. Thus no party can gain an outright majority. The other 50% should consist of 210 cross bench peers (appointed by a cross-party commission from the lower house) and 40 Lords Spiritual. The bishops of the Church of England (our established church and still the nation’s largest denomination) would continue to have a major place in this, but should be bolstered by leaders of other denominations (Roman Catholic, Methodist and Free Churches) and by Muslim, Hindu and Sikh leaders, all of whom can represent the views of their faiths.
Retired bishops or other Lords Spiritual would automatically become non-voting members; former Archbishops of Canterbury would have first refusal on voting membership when a vacancy arose (though they would lose that first refusal on all subsequent vacancies). I would not abolish the involvement of hereditary peers. Those peerages still associated with a seat in the Lords would, when passed to heirs, become non-voting peerages and those holding them could be appointed as voting members when vacancies arose.
The remaining question is that of the cost of the House. At present, members can claim a £300/day attendance allowance, as well as various other benefits. This is obviously extravagant, especially since many Lords are already very well resourced. Assuming a £10/hour living wage, and acknowledging that many debates do run late into the night, the allowance should be reduced to £100/day for attendance. Non-voting member would not receive an allowance, though they would be entitled to use Parliamentary facilities on days when formally invited to attend. These two limitations would result in a major reduction in costs, making a reformed house of Lords far more sustainable.
A cheaper, more practical house, not susceptible to the vicissitudes of the political process is one which can keep healthy disagreement at the heart of our democracy.