Is the House of Lords Dead?

James Ware

Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 1

With my visit last May to the Palace of Westminster with my Boroughs Youth Council to ‘grill’ or be brainwashed (depending on your degree of cynicism) by John McDonnell MP, The Hillingdon Youth Council saw the ‘Green’ corridor’s of power round the Commons.

Yet the ‘Red’ corridor’s surrounding our second chamber, the House of Lords were not on the tour.  Given ‘New’ Labour’s landslide number of 419 MPs (out of 659 =2/3) on 43% of votes cast nationwide, all of which committed in their manifesto to reforming the second chamber by removing the voting rights of hereditary peers as a first step.  The lack of knowledge on what could be the most far reaching reform of our domestic legislative process is disturbing, if not downright deceptive against the people.  In this article 1 seek to explain what the House of Lords is and does before analysing the ideas for reform.

Believe it or not the Lords has about 1,200 members.  Most of them (approximately 700 -800) are hereditary.  This means that their place is passed down from one generation to the eldest child of the next.  The rest are life peers.  Aside from the 26 Bishops and law lords the rest are awarded their peerages for achievements and expertise such as former Premiers, Cabinet Ministers and speakers of the Commons or in other spheres such as Sue Ryder or Professor Winston (of I.V.F. and B.B.C. 1 Human Body fame).  It is ironic that in an age when all discriminatory ‘Isms’, including ageism, are being combated, we might be about to see the demise of this, the “… Madame Tussauds of British Politics” (Tony Benn nee Viscount Stansgate).  Yet when all of the members are over thirty and two thirds of those who can vote, nicknamed the ‘backwoodsmen’ are continually Conservative, regardless of the political mood of the nation, popular opinion is against the chamber.  Yet in its wholesale dismissal of the Lords as unrepresentative of them and backing Labour in a 1788 French style, the much vaunted public opinion may be failing to recognise that the Lords are defenders of our rights and the conventions by which we are governed.

The argument in defence of the status quo has two main points:

1) The house is useful in representing interests, bringing learned expertise and information into proposed laws (or bills) and in relieving the pressure on the lower chamber.

2)There is no clear opinion as to what the new second chamber will be like, and Labour’s interim is liable to extreme loyalty to the government of the day, at the expense of the general public, Cranbourne’s deal notwithstanding.

Taking the first point, I have seen the Lords at work on another occasion thanks to the kindness of someone I interviewed for an ‘A’ level assignment.  As Walter Bagehot (an eminent nineteenth century political commentator) noted, since the Commons procedures are not perfect and are overworked, a second chamber that does provide considered scrutiny of legislation clause by clause, and to a lesser extent the government of the day is highly useful.  We actually need a second chamber to consider some legislation before the Commons, so that everything is completed within the constraints of Parliaments sittings.  The Lords provides a mix of expertise especially amongst the ‘lifers’ which is ‘Best of British’ and can create or increase debate in the media e.g. over tuition fees or on constitutional affairs.  All this is done while still strictly subordinate to the elected Commons, who can pass its legislation regardless, after a years delay.

Hence critics of reform say “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” The answer is because the people perceive something very wrong with the majority being hereditary, with Baroness Jay’s speech against their privileges (15/10/98, House Of Lords) being favourably received from Independent to Sun alike.  Yet a second chamber whose composition is solely dependent on appointment, be it based upon Prime Ministerial, Committee, or jury system risks a body that is truly neutered to the government of the day.  Similarly a totally elected house could fundamentally shift the balance of power, remember that in America it is the Senate which is the more powerful.  The Tory Broadsheet proposal of 250 elected, 250 appointed would not be much better, as the curtailment of the second chambers breadth of collective knowledge and expertise would damage legislative debate, and reduce the opportunity for interest groups to have their say, without using the lobbyists of this world.

Hence though the Lords is as good as dead in its present form thanks to Labours intentions, the media and genuine public opinion in this less deferential society; the present suggestions for its replacements are equally flawed. With this in mind I have a suggestion, a fully elected second chamber mandated by a written constitution solely to revise legislation and hold the government of the day to account; with none of its members being ministers.  To allow interest groups open involvement and the quality of debate to remain high, life peers would continue to have speaking but not voting rights.  Hence Professor Winston could still propose informed amendments to Health legislation, and those mandated by the people through the ballot box of the S.T.V. system to amend the bills would have the decision to accept or reject.

The S.T.V. system for electing the voting component of multimember, preferential voting produces proportionality, local accountability (albeit over a wider area).  This allows not only constituents to chose who to approach but ‘peers’ can specialise so that each of those elected within the area takes different matters forward for their constituents and can more effectively amend and scrutinise legislation.  Plus it facilitates all political parties in influencing legislation, if not initiating it from Whitehall.  With a minimum age encouraging older people to serve with their expertise while the F.P.T.P. legislature acted decisively in the Commons, a genuine balance between executive forming Commons and scrutinising Senate could emerge.

Additionally, UK members of the European Parliament should have attendance rights so as to be scrutinised for their actions in Brussels and to explain the implications of European directives that are at present passed ‘on the nod’ at Westminster, much to the annoyance of fishermen, farmers, and art dealers alike.  Sometimes with scrutiny being even less than that (see political decisions on the granting of subsidies).  From this the British public would see this as beneficial and highly educational (us ruling Europe to the extent that we are a component of it), increasing support for realism over socialist and now defeated Kohlite fantasies of continual co-operation between distinct but linked states.

Yet such a blatantly utopian solution is unlikely to occur given ministers desires to maximise their power and minimise their scrutiny (watch Prime Ministers Questions, Wednesday 3 P.M./ B.B.C.2 to see the most toadying examples, though the past lot of backbenchers were just as bad.). It will take people young and old to learn and understand the issues on this and any other, matter and then lobby their MP and elected representatives whose election in which they voted at whatever level, whether for them or against.  Will you do so whenever an issue of concern to all of you arises?  You’ll have to personally before anything really changes.