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Arguments for and Against Reform of the House of Lords

The house of lords is the undemocratic second chamber of the British parliament but has little real power, theses are the arguments for and against reform of the chamber.

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Reform of the House of Lords has been an ongoing process since the first parliament act in 1911 which removed from the lords the power of veto replacing it with a delaying function the 1949 parliament act limited this delaying power to one year but since then there have been calls for further reform. The life peerage act of 1958 paved the way for the more sweeping reforms of the House of Lords act 1999 which removed all but 92 of the remaining hereditary peers.

The 2000 wakeham report called for a 550 member chamber with an elected minority, with a minimum 20% cross benchers and removing the powers of patronage away from the prime minister.

The 2001 white paper proposed a mainly appointed chamber but this was unpopular due to the fact that only 120 peers would be elected.

 Currently the lord gives legitimacy to acts passed by the commons as they go through more intensive scrutiny with there sometimes being better informed peers than there counterparts in the commons. The fact that most peers are more experienced than members of the commons again leads to better scrutiny and gives them the ability so spot flaws in legislation with the lords making hundreds of changes to bills every year. Theses reasons are put forward as arguments against reform of the lords along with; an elected second chamber would become a commons mark 2 that would do nothing different than parliament and would become a conflicting power in the palace of Westminster. Another reason against reform is that if the second chamber is elected more recently than the first or if it was elected by a system of proportional representation then it would be able to gain more legitimacy than the commons which could lead to a power struggle that would be detrimental to the running of the country. Subjecting a second chamber to party and electoral pressures would be detrimental to the independence and effectiveness of the commons.

 There are arguments in favour of the reform, like the fact that we have the only unelected second chamber in the western world and this undemocratic nature is not good for the countries standing in the world. The current state of the lords maintains birth privileges and dated class distinctions which can only have a bad effect of society. The fact that life peers leave wiggle room for corruption is obviously bad for the country and allowing this to happen in the corridors of power is not good. The political bias given to the conservative party in the lords, which was used in 1988 to pass the vastly unpopular poll tax is bad for democracy and for any kind of reform.

 As the lords currently have very little real powers other than scrutiny it is not a very sound argument that the undemocratic nature of the lords is bad for parliament, the fact is that an elected second chamber would be a source of conflict which would not be beneficial for theses reforms to happen. On the whole the cons of lords reform outweigh the pros.

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  1. Matt

    On June 11, 2010 at 6:58 am


    A HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM PROPOSAL

    The chief aim of my proposals is to make a transition to a different form of second chamber, on the threefold principle that:

    a) Such a transition needs to be a reasonably painless, evolutionary process.

    b) Such a transition needs to produce a more effective, ’slim-line’ revising chamber.

    c) Such a transition needs to produce a chamber which contains a more interesting and varied mix of members.

    Taking these three principles together, we need to take steps which will, so to speak, throw out the bath-water, but not the baby … and, to stretch the analogy a little, create space for some fresh water, too:

    Step One:
    Retain current arrangements for Hereditaries and Bishops. Automatically grant a life-peerage to all members of the supreme court ; who become entitled to sit in the Lords (as ‘Law Lords’) upon their retirement from the court.

    Step Two:
    A Bill placing a limit on the total number of peers there can be (whether sitting in the Lords or not), at any one time. I suggest 1750 people.

    Step Three:
    The Life Peers to select 25% of their numbers to sit in the Lords (the remaining ‘pool’ of Life Peers could, like the pool of Hereditaries, be voted back into the chamber, upon the death of a sitting Life Peer).

    Step Four:
    100 New Category Peers, selected entirely at random, maybe by a form of national lottery, phased in 20 per year. Replaced one at a time, on the death of one of their number.

    Democracy is good, but so also is a link with our history as a nation (which the already much-depleted ‘Lords Spiritual’ help to provide). Our main focus should be on the house continuing to do what it does best, and strengthening and improving upon those things. There is no public clamour now for the complete removal of the Hereditaries. It is the number of Life Peers which is becoming unwieldy. Meanwhile, the introduction of Random ‘Jury’ Peers would be a simple and direct way of engaging the general public in parliamentary business.

    It would be good to get a bit more ‘randomism’ in public life. What a delightful thing it would be, and what a boost to public interest in politics, if, say, the local bin-man was suddenly ennobled, under my system. Certainly, the presence of these ‘Jury Peers’ would go a long way to making the ‘feel’ of the second chamber much less elitist.

    For clarity, a Lords ‘Lottery Winner’ would have so many days (I’m open to suggestions on how many) to accept, in writing, the offer of a seat. Obviously, those who were going to find it too disruptive to their lives would most likely not bother to respond, which would be taken as declining the offer ~ with the offer passed on to the next on the list.

    New entrants of this sort could well be over-awed to begin with, but I think they would soon get into the swing of things … and before long, they would find themselves mentoring the next batch of entrants.

    The possibility of dangerous/criminal/extreme types getting in there should be covered by clear proceedural rules in the house, and the law of the land, as and when any problems arise. I wouldn’t want there to be any pre-vetting as such, because the virtue of the random intake is it’s potential to bring forward some real free thinkers. This free thinking is enshrined by life-long occupation of the seat.

    The opt-out that I mentioned earlier assumes that those who take their seats will want to participate. However, it does not ask anyone in advance about whether they would want to get involved, due to the old adage of ‘those who seek power shouldn’t be given it’. Thus random allocation comes as more of a pleasant surprise.

    A sufficient (though not extravagant) salary would also need to be agreed upon, so that poorer people are not immediately put off … but this again is a detail to be discussed. My hope is that the ‘Jury Peers’ would come into their own, over time, as guardians of the constitution, of basic liberties, and of common standards of decency … They would begin as absolute beginners, and end their lives as national treasures.

    Some idle musings now on what the approximate ’shape’ (using slightly out-dated wikipedia figures!) of The Lords would be, following my slimming down of the number of Life Peers ~

    Conservative: 83 (35 Life, 48 Hereditary)
    Cross: 71 (38 L, 33 H)
    Labour: 54 (52 L, 2 H)
    Lib Dems: 22 (17 L, 5 H)
    UKIP: 2 (1 L, 1 H)

    Significantly, the current (2010) Coalition Government gets a much better ’showing’ here ~ but by a process of reduction, rather than addition.

    Total: 232 (117 for majority vote, currently Cons plus Lib Dems = 105; which means support also needed from 12 cross-benchers).

    Party Percentages:
    Conservative: 35.8%
    Cross: 30.6%
    Labour: 23.3%
    Lib Dems: 9.5%
    UKIP: 0.9%

    [Comparison To Commons:]
    [Conservative: 46.9%]
    [Labour: 39.7%]
    [Lib Dems: 8.8%]
    [Others: 4.6 %]

    First Intake Of Random (’Jury’) Peers: 20
    Bishops: 25
    Law Lords: 22

    Total added on: 69

    Total Life Peers: 143
    Total Hereditary Peers: 91 (1 replacement pending)

    Total House: 301

    % Life Peers: 47.5 %
    % Hereditary: 30.2 %
    % First Intake Jury: 6.6 %
    % Bishops: 8.3 %
    % Law: 7.3 %

    In Sweden, a ‘Council on Legislation’ considers:

    1. the manner in which the draft law relates to the fundamental laws (i.e. Sweden’s written and entrenched Constitution) and the legal system in general;

    2. the manner in which the different provisions of the draft law relate to one another;

    3. the manner in which the draft law relates to the requirements of the rule of law;

    4. whether the draft law is so framed that the resulting act of law may be expected to satisfy the stated purposes of the proposed law;

    5. what problems are likely to arise in applying the act of law.

    I think all of those considerations could be usefully discussed by the Law Lords (and other peers with a legal background).
    I think it unlikely that the Law Lords would want to do much voting in the divisions ~ this could be something for a Lords committee to keep an eye on.
    I would also like to see a gradual movement towards one written constitution; which could incorporate those five key points.

    Upon the completion of a written constitution, I would want any future alterations to that constitution to require the consent of both houses (maybe at a higher threshold than 50% plus 1).

    On a final side point, it might be healthy to introduce a check-and-balance to the hereditary monarchy, by requiring the next in line to the throne to secure the approval of both houses, before becoming Head Of State. In the (highly unlikely) event of this approval not being granted, the next person along in line to the throne would go forward in the same way.

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