Why the House of Lords needs to be reconfigured on a more democratic footing.
Reform of the House of Lords is a policy that carries general support. A recent opinion poll showed that only 23 per cent favoured the present position. Given the chaotically anomalous nature of the House of Lords as at present constituted, that is hardly surprising. To look no further than numbers, there are about 825 members of the House of Lords, compared with 650 elected Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. It cannot be right for the lower house — where ultimate power lies — to be outnumbered by the upper house.
General support for reform is one thing. Getting anything like general support for any particular aspect of reform is another matter. The present U.K. government, which is facing many crises, seems to be getting nowhere in producing proposals for reform which have any likelihood of widespread acceptance. With so many problems to face — recession, a coalition that is tearing itself apart, a continuing dispute over measures introduced in the recent budget, to mention only three — David Cameron must be tempted to put the whole idea of reform on hold yet again.
One of the major difficulties is that sporadic attempts over recent years to bring reform to the Lords have produced changes which, far from removing anomalies, have actually created even more.
Traditionally, the House of Lords was simply a reflection of the fact — an odd fact from today's perspective — that the U.K. has a hereditary peerage. The ability of the House of Lords to overrule decisions taken by the House of Commons became more and more unacceptable from the early days of the 20th century, and gradually the power of the upper house was curtailed. A major element in this was the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act (introduced by the then Liberal government). It was fiercely resisted by the Lords, but eventually passed when the King (George V) threatened to create sufficient Liberal peers to overcome the then Conservative majority in the Lords. The Bill effectively removed the right of the Lords to veto money bills completely, and imposed a maximum time for which other Bills could be delayed.
Over the years, other changes were made, notably by the 1999 House of Lords Act which strictly limited the number of hereditary peers. The position now is that non-hereditary peers reach the Lords through appointment (by the House of Lords Appointments Commission), and those made on the recommendation of the Prime Minister (including appointment of MPs who are leaving the House of Commons).
The situation, clearly, remains anomalous. You could argue, with tongue in cheek, that the ability to kick ex-MPs, including ex-Prime Ministers, “upstairs” is preferable to the situation in some non-democratic countries where they are kicked “downstairs” into prison, or worse.
Without tongue in cheek, it is apparent that some major reform is necessary. There is widespread popular support for a much more directly democratic system of choice. Nearly 70 per cent of those polled in the recent opinion poll supported the idea of electing at least 80 per cent of members of the second chamber.
Turning that popular wish into political reality will certainly not be straightforward. A joint parliamentary committee given the task of examining Liberal Democrat plans for an elected upper house broadly endorsed them — but then demonstrated that there were major divisions within the committee, one group actually issuing a separate report arguing that the proposals would be unworkable, and would threaten the primacy of the House of Commons. That's coalition for you!
The position now is that there is widespread agreement that the present situation needs to be changed, and almost total disagreement about how such change can be brought about. Given all the other problems that he faces, it would hardly be surprising if reform of the House of Lords fell from anywhere near the top of David Cameron's list.
I would certainly not argue that the present position is democratic. I do, however, remind myself that, anomalous though it is, the present situation has some strengths. For example, members of the Lords include people with a wide range of experience in many different fields. On numerous occasions they have shown themselves to have independence of approach. Quite often, when governments have rushed into policies without properly thinking them through, it has been the House of Lords which has provided the opportunity for more mature thought.
Reform is certainly needed, but the mature baby should not be thrown out with the messy bathwater.