First published in Canvas: 26th March 2012
On March 19th 1649, the Commons of England declared the House of Lords a ‘useless’ and ‘dangerous’ institution that threatened the freedom of the English people. They summarily abolished it, removing the right of Peers to make use of Parliamentary privileges or to sit, vote, advise, adjudge, or determine any matter of the land.
For those who hope for the abolishment of the upper house, this episode demonstrates how practice can be the best of all instructors. The issue of replacing the Lords was never adequately resolved during the years of English Commonwealth. As a consequence, the instruments of state imploded, and the Lords returned. And more than a century after the Liberal government passed the 1911 Reform Act, which stripped the Lords of their power of veto, they remain. Sumptuously decorated with lavish but stuffy leather interiors and a gothic atmosphere, their chamber remains a refuge for the unelected and unaccountable.
The Labour Party has long committed itself to remedying this situation. In 1910, it simply stated that ‘THE LORDS MUST GO!’ The Lords, they said, represented landed interests that were incompatible with those of the working man. Finally, in 1999, the Labour Government legislated to remove all but 92 hereditary peers from the House of Lords. However, no subsequent proposals have been enacted.
Crucially, further reform cannot be successful unless it has a clear sense of why it is needed and what it hopes to achieve. Before the 2010 election, all three parties renewed their pledges to reform the Lords. Current coalition proposals outline a Senate of 300 Peers – 80% elected and 20% appointed – that will retain the same functions of the current chamber. While not perfect, they are an important step forward .
In order for the reform to be successful, all parties need to work together to defeat the notion that an unelected Lords is the better arrangement. Though the Lords may well foster a different kind of expertise and ensure that legislation is more considered, to suggest that it is impartial and insulated from political interests is just stupid. Since the reign of George III, Prime Ministers have repeatedly packed the Lords make it more amenable to the party in power. In its first year, the Coalition appointed over a hundred new Peers.
This undoubtedly has to end. The 93 remaining hereditary peerages need to be abolished as soon as possible. Future appointments need be made independent of the government, and the number of Peers restricted to prevent any further packing. To ensure adequate representation, the Lords needs to represent different imperatives from those of the Commons, be it they derived from a regional list, through proportional representation, or by representatives elected from professional bodies (The Royal Institute of Town Planning for example) or the unions (British Medical Association).
Clarification on the selection of appointed Peers is also vital. If the Coalition proposal becomes law, will Peers be newly appointed or derived from the existing pool? In the case of the latter, how would they be narrowed down? Considering that a 20% bloc could hold the balance of power in any vote we must ensure that appointed Peers are not simply those favoured by the main political parties. Additionally, how will the reform affect the relationship between the Lords and the Commons, considering that an elected Lords would have equal legitimacy?
Equally important is accountability. Most Lords do not have offices, websites, or even contact addresses, and a scant few make any effort to engage with the public. To collectively describe them as having unique knowledge and expertise is false. The reality is a hodgepodge collection of so-called experts, many of them who have made significant donations to political parties, or retired MPs, who see an appointment to the Lords as a way of retaining influence or as a reward for party loyalty. Lords should be granted offices, staff, and be compelled to attend sittings. The culture of, ‘collect £300 and go’ for attending has to end.
The Lords also has to reform its rules. There have been several recent instances of lobbyists attempting to buy amendments in bills by bribing Peers  – a gross misuse of power. In those instances, a committee had to be set up to investigate whether Peers could in fact even be suspended. Also, a recent survey indicated that nearly one in five staff pass-holders in the Lords were involved in lobbying for organisations as diverse as British Petroleum, the National Farmers Union, the Evangelical Alliance and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children .
Religious representation is also crucial. Whether one has religious faith or not, one has to accept that religion plays a large part in the lives of many people, and therefore requires representation. In this case, it is surely wrong for the Lords to represent just one single conception of religious morality. Anglican Bishops have lobbied long and hard to retain a position for themselves in the Lords. They should be joined by representatives of other major religions.
Ultimately however, the aim has to be democratisation. Defenders of the status quo often hide behind the notion of the Lords as a shield between the voter and the government, particularly when the government is under the control of a political party they do not like. To suggest that the people who have a decisive input in the drafting and implementation of laws should be unelected is absurd.
Making the House of Lords elected would allow us to take full responsibility for our actions as voters, whilst creating a stronger system of checks and balances within government. The Commons certainly does not have a divine right to be the dominant institution in our political system, and as long as the Lords remain unaccountable to the people, it cannot act legitimately. THE LORDS MUST GO!