Initial thoughts on the Lords’ Reform proposals

Having had some time to consider the Coalition Government’s White Paper on reforming the House of Lords, I do see a few potential issues that hopefully will be addressed during the consultation process. You can read my blog post summarising the proposals here.

1. Accountability

The first is that of accountability. The main argument for an elected House of Lords is that it will be more accountable than is the current appointed House.

To address this matter, the White Paper proposes that 80% of the members of the House of Lords, 240 peers, be elected and that they serve one non-renewable term which would, in theory at least, last about 15 years (three “normal” election cycles).  As many others have pointed out, once elected who are the new peers accountable to? Democracy is about being accountable to the people. Being able to get rid of someone is as important as the ability to elect them in the first place. If a peer never has to face the electorate again, I don’t see how this makes them more accountable to anyone. They’ve simply gone from being appointed for life by the PM to being appointed for 15 years by voters.

2. Term length and limits

One of the main strengths of the House of Lords (and Canada’s Senate), is that they have the luxury of time to specialise in certain policy areas given that they are not subject to the vagaries and fickleness of public opinion and elections. Consequently, I do agree, if we are moving to an elected upper chamber,  that a peer should serve a much longer term than would an MP, but I would cap it at perhaps eight or 10 years, and I would allow them to seek re-election. It would strike me as unfortunate to lose the services of a very capable peer, who, over the course of their term, had gained great expertise in a given area of policy, because of a somewhat arbitrary term limit. A peer who is making a recognized contribution should be able to seek re-election, and voters should have the right to judge the performance of elected peers at the ballot box, which they won’t be able to do if peers are limited to serving only one term.

3. Increased legitimacy

Another issue to consider is if a House of Lords elected by proportional representation might not be viewed in some ways as more legitimate than the House of Commons elected by FPTP because it would better reflect actual voting patterns. We’re all too familiar with “majority” governments elected with much less than a majority of the popular vote under FTPT, leaving a majority of the electorate feeling rather disenfranchised. If the upper chamber is elected by some form of proportional representation (the draft bill proposes the Single Transferable Vote but they are open to other options), it will more closely embody the actual political mood of the country.

Imagine a scenario where a general election for the House of Commons returns a majority government for one party, and that party received barely 36% of the vote, while the 80 peers elected at the same time lead to a House of Lords which reflects the popular vote. How will this play out in terms of the Salisbury Convention? Will the peers still feel bound to not opposing any bill based on a manifesto pledge supported by less than half of the electorate if their own numbers are far more reflective of the actual political make-up of the country?

The White Paper stresses that the House of Commons will remain the primary House of Parliament, even with a mostly or wholly elected House of Lords, but it remains to be seen if that would be the case.

4. Numbers

The White Paper proposes reducing the membership of the House of Lords to 300. One can quibble about the exact number, but I don’t think too many will disagree that the current membership numbers (over 800) is unmanageable and unsustainable. Indeed, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee warned recently that this was a serious issue that should be addressed immediately and separately from any other reform initiatives that might well take years to implement – if they ever are implemented:

7. 117 new Members of the House of Lords have been announced since May 2010. Of these, 61 were on the recommendation of Rt Hon David Cameron MP, the current Prime Minister, and 56 on the recommendation of Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, the former Prime Minister. This has led to several problems, on which a Leader’s Group in the Lords has reported: risk to the House’s reputation, difficulty of conducting business effectively, and pressure on the services provided by the House administration. These problems have also been discussed in a recent report by the Constitution Unit, University College London. The Government is committed to implementing the transition to a wholly or predominantly elected House of Lords in 2015. However, the current, effectively untrammelled, process for making party-political appointments to the House of Lords, coupled with the lack of any mechanism for Members to leave the upper House, threatens that House’s effective functioning in the shorter term.

8. This is a pressing issue that cannot wait four years to be resolved. Many of the recommendations of the Leader’s Group on leaving the House of Lords could be implemented without the need for legislation, in particular their plea “that restraint should be exercised by all concerned in the recommendation of new appointments to the House, until such time as debate over the size of membership is conclusively determined.”

This call to “all concerned” is diplomatically phrased, but in practice, the person who ultimately exercises control over the number of new appointments to the House of Lords is the Prime Minister.

9. We also heard substantial support for Lord Steel of Aikwood’s House of Lords Bill, in particular the provisions that would allow Members of the Lords to choose to leave the House, and to remove absentees and those sentenced to more than a year in prison.

It might be worth considering prioritizing the various aspects of Lords’ reform in such a was as to separate some issues that need immediate attention, and that could be addressed rather more easily from the more contentious issues that might take years to find agreement on and implement.

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