House of Lords reform


In favour of an appointed second chamber.

I’m writing this as I listen to the Deputy Prime Minister making the case for Lords’ Reform. He’s making the point over and over again that all of the parties have signed up to House of Lords reform. The problem is that there’s so little agreement on the detail. By the sounds of the debate the only agreement seems to be “There shall be House of Lords Reform” … and that’s about it. It’s a bit like the debacle over tuition fees when Labour and the Conservatives committed to the non-policy of saying they would examine a pathetically-funded review on higher education, the outcome of which was depressingly predictable. It would have been nice for each of the political parties to have put far more detail in all of this, but by the sounds of things the parties are just as much divided inside as they are on the outside.

Torn between the idealistic and the pragmatic.

In an ideal world, we’d have a fully-elected second chamber on the simple grounds that those that make the law should be accountable to the people who are subject to them. The problem with this as things stand is the House of Commons is so poor at scrutinising legislation that the House of Lords has to do a massive job making up for what the Commons should be doing.

Having had an inside seat working on part of a bill going through all of its stages in Parliament, I have seen how much tougher House of Lords scrutiny is compared to House of Commons scrutiny. In my own experience, the toughest scrutiny the area I was working on came from an hereditary peer! You can imagine how this fact disturbed me greatly.

Therein lies by concern: How can we ensure that we have a second chamber that can compensate for the shortcomings of the House of Commons – at least until such a time as the House of Commons’ shortcomings can be overcome by itself (if they ever can be).

Constitutional reform

My take is that you cannot have House of Lords reform without House of Commons reform. My preference is to have a complete separation of executive from legislature. There is a massive conflict of interest in having MPs being members of the government. You cannot have MPs being members of the main institution they are charged with scrutinising. Governments of both sides are limited in the number of ‘paid’ ministerial posts by Parliament. To increase the number of MPs tied to the convention of collective government responsibility, parties on both sides have appointed ‘unpaid’ ministers and/or Parliamentary Private Secretaries – meaning that such MPs are extremely limited on how critical they can be of the government they serve. A number of people have tweeted to Puffles that their local MP has written back to them saying that as a minister or a PPS, they are duty-bound to support the a government line – even when on a constituency issue.

Solving problems by passing laws…lots of them.

If passing more laws solved problems, crime would have been eliminated by the almost annual crime and disorder/criminal justice bills that are introduced. Fewer bills with better scrutiny anyone? One of the seemingly eternal tensions in parliamentary systems is the need for sound scrutiny versus filibustering legislation – talking them out of existence. Hence guillotine motions which while dealing with the filibustering issue creates the greater problem of not having nearly enough parliamentary time to scrutinise legislation.

Why an appointed House of Lords?

The main principle here is to bring in the expertise of people who for one reason or another are outside the world of party politics but whose input is extremely valuable. Good examples include people who have had careers in politically-restricted posts in the public sector, such as the police, armed forces and the senior civil service. How do you get the expertise that you currently get with cross-benchers in the House of Lords? I also declare an interest of being friends with Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson who happens to be a cross-bencher. My viewpoint on being in favour of an appointed rather than an elected second chamber is based on my experience of ministers I’ve worked for being subject to far tougher scrutiny from the House of Lords than the House of Commons. Unless and until we get a House of Commons that can properly scrutinise legislation, I cannot see how an elected House of Lords will be anything more than a chamber of apparatchiks on a list system made up of politicians who were rejected at the ballot box under the first-past-the-post system.

Those in favour of an elected Lords rightly make the point-of-principle that if people don’t want to stand for election should not have the right to amend legislation. In principle yes, but our current primary elected chamber has proved itself unable to pass legislation that has been subject to proper scrutiny. What do we do where the point of principle does not work in reality?

So…that’s the principle, what about the detail?

Systems, processes and people. There is a bit of the honours system that works pretty well – the ‘non-political’ honours for the civic great and the good. (i.e. not the gongs for bankers, party donors, celebrities and political appointees). Having worked with people who have managed the appointments processes for such honours, the system is tough and rigorous. As it should be. The criteria in the honours system give an indication of what things could be considered as criteria for being appointed to a second chamber. Interesting as I finish this paragraph that Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative Defence Secretary has just said that Canada and Germany have appointed second chambers. (A point since challenged by Elliot Folan). What can we learn from those countries if we are to have one here?

One possible model is to say it would be up to Parliament to decide what the criteria are (and for how long appointed members of an upper chamber should serve), and for a committee of the Commons to select an appointments panel that would decide who should go into an upper chamber. Another one could include representatives of professional institutions and academia so as to have a permanent presence from those areas that is currently lacking in the Commons – such as on science and technology.

In terms of costs that are being thrown around, the costs involved that are being banded about in the debate are insignificant compared to the amount of money they are responsible for scrutinising. My take is that Parliament needs significantly more resources in order to do a better job. Don’t believe me? Look at the shambles that was the Treasury Select Committee’s scrutiny of Bob Diamond last week. A far better trained, organised and co-ordinated set of MPs would have made a far better go of it. Personally I’d go as far to say that leading QCs should be attached to select committees to both advise and lead on questioning of witnesses.

A revising chamber

This principle of the Lords already exists – i.e. it takes legislation tabled by the government of the day and seeks to improve upon it, leaving the primacy of the Commons to decide on the merits of the principles of the bill concerned. It explains why even such flawed bills such as the now Health and Social Care Act and the Welfare Reform Act, both of 2012 were not rejected by the House of Lords at second reading. Instead, they were bombarded with amendment after amendment in order to improve some very poor legislation.

An appointed upper chamber would automatically have its status as a revising chamber underpinned by the fact that its members were not elected, reinforcing the primacy of the Commons. At the same time that upper house would ensure that expertise from far beyond the world of party politics to contribute to the scrutiny of the government without undermining the role of the House of Commons. An elected upper house would automatically undermine the primacy of the Commons because each elected member could point to a mandate. You simply would not get that with an appointed chamber.

The devil of course would be in the detail. What ultimately would be the criteria? Would Labour be happy to have say someone from the British Bankers Association any more than the Conservatives would be happy with someone from Unite the Trade Union? Who would sit on the appointments panel? Would there be a place for former senior ministers (who know many of the tricks of the trade of ministerial office!) to sit in an upper chamber? You also have the issue of remaining hereditaries (I say get rid of them) and of Anglican clergy (either get rid of them or have representation from all the main faith communities – but make appointments transparent).

As it is, until someone can convince me that the House of Commons is doing a job of scrutinising legislation and the executive to the level of the House of Lords, I will remain unconvinced of the merits of an elected second chamber.


6 thoughts on “House of Lords reform

  1. “As it is, until someone can convince me that the House of Commons is doing a job of scrutinising legislation and the executive to the level of the House of Lords, I will remain unconvinced of the merits of an elected second chamber.”

    I feel you’ve gone 90% of the way then turned around at the last stage! You talk (rightly) of the problems of the executive being involved in the parliamentary legislative processes, and the problems that brings.

    You must recognise, I’m sure you do, that MPs in a chamber that proposes and argues on laws (the many many laws) have a different focus to a group of people that are there to revise and further scrutinise.

    I think, in short, you’re being far too broad by simply taking the model of an MP, within the scenario they are in, and comparing it to what could be in an elected second chamber.

    An elected second chamber, if we assume it is unable to bring forward legislation, would clearly be secondary to the house of commons, without the presence of career threatening strangle holds on MPs in the governing party, and culturally would only be expected to change legislation for the better (and in the few more extreme cases reject it).

    The Commons does a bad job of scrutinising legislation because of what it is, not because the people are elected. They have all kinds of experts provide evidence at the committee stage, but this is ignored in favour of towing the party line. Every tool is there for them to make the right decisions except for time. Obviously this reform doesn’t increase the time the whole parliament has, and that’s a problem…but it does force greater scrutiny through the provision of the proportionally elected chamber to nullify (to some extent) the disparity of power by our system of election for the commons.

  2. I’m for some sort of changes to the House of Lords.

    It’s utterly ridiculous in the modern age that the CofE has reserved seats in there (that are therefore closed to Women), for a start.

    It’s grown to be bloated.with hundreds of Peers being created in the last few years alone.

    I’d be reasonably happy with a system of Lifetime appointments provided the appointees actually contribute, and there is a fixed limit on the number active.

    In theory the HoL would be a more steady, slower changing view of the direction this country has voted.

    If they don’t appear or do enough stuff in a year they should be moved aside IMO, too i.e. fewer passengers

  3. A civil servant appointed House of Lords would have been something of a dream for Sir Humphrey Appleby and the pre-Thick of It conception of the Civil Service being the real government of the UK. From my time in the Civil Service I know that it is precisely as full of idiots, toadies and time-servers as any other organisation (even if they are, as with even the most venal of banks, Enron, etc largely staffed by diligent and decent people).

    In “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” terms it is hard to see what benefit there was in removing the bulk of hereditaries – those who bothered to turn up tended to do a good job of scrutinising legislation and holding the government of the day to account. The Lords during 92-97 were more effective than the opposition in the Commons at doing this. But, of course, the idea of people being born into such authority is one that we needed to get away from.

    I don’t much care if elected Lords are rubbish. In a democracy, if it works at all, we, the people, get what we deserve. Can’t be bothered to vote – get politicians who don’t care about your opinion. Want politicians to sound like they’re always going to do something immediately to react to whatever thing is exercising you or twitter at that moment – get policians who will say anything and who don’t really care about long term impacts.

    When the argument comes from MPs that they don’t like the idea of parties putting in obedient and unreflective placeholders to the lists for an elected Lords it is particularly laughable. If MPs don’t have the power or inclination to make the parties of which they are senior members choose good candidates and we can’t be bothered to hold them to account for it what’s the point in any of them? Why not just appoint the Commons too from amongst local people who seem to be qualified to represent their areas. Maybe just retain a vestige of democracy by electing the Prime Minister (which is what many people seem to think we do anyway).

  4. TBH, I say we either go unicameral, or have a majority-appointed second chamber, appointed by an independent commission. Majority elected brings up all sorts of primacy issues – I don’t buy the argument that it will be subordinate to the Commons just because everyone agrees now that it will be. If elected by PR there will be argument that says it will be more electorally representative of the will of British people and where’s your Salisbury Convention then?

    A unicameral approach could work if the scrutiny functions of the Commons were completely overhauled. Better use of committees and a more sensible approach to pre-legislative scrutiny, and a rethink of the role of Bill committees, would be a good start.

  5. It’s notably late, although Puffles just retweeted this, but one argument for appointment is the ability to address the representation of otherwise disenfranchised minorities. Practically the only significant opposition to the assault on disability benefits enshrined in the Welfare Reform Bill came from disabled members of the Lords such as Baroness Campbell and Baroness Grey-Thomson, the vast majority of non-disabled members of both Houses apparently couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about and took Lord Freud at face value when he claimed there wasn’t anything to worry about. While out in the real world disabled people who would face the actual impact of these changes were (and are) absolutely terrified.

    I don’t much care what mechanism is used to get rid of the last traces of hereditary peers, what I care about is there being someone to represent my needs as an individual disabled person (or whatever minority will bear the brunt of legislation being considered), when all the major parties have abandoned me.

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