Taking Back Control: Putting our own (upper) house in order

Nigel Fletcher, Head of Research at the liberal conservative think tank Bright Blue talks about the need to tackle the unelected and unaccountable decision makers in Westminster. He sets out his vision for a reformed House of Lords. 

One of the key criticisms levelled at the EU by its detractors – including those who voted Remain– has been the presence and influence of unelected and unaccountable decision-makers. The same glaring criticisms are frequently made of one half of our own parliament, the House of Lords.

Lords reform has been a recurring controversy in British constitutional debate for more than a century, with change coming only incrementally through measures such as the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, the introduction of life peers in 1958 and the expulsion of most hereditary members in 1999.  

David Cameron was the last of a long list of Prime Ministers who attempted reform, eventually failing to win support in his party for a majority-elected House in 2012.  He revisited the issue last year after suffering defeats over key benefit reforms, but reports suggest the current Prime Minister has now chosen to retreat from confronting the issue.  This would be a lost opportunity.

It is manifestly unsustainable for a Western liberal democracy to maintain an ever-growing number of unelected law-makers appointed for life, a fact which even the most ardent defenders of the Lords increasingly accept.  Resistance to reform rests largely on the difficulty of agreeing an alternative. But that is the job of politicians, and rather than shirk the challenge, they have a duty to try harder.

The central dilemma is how to design a chamber that provides democratic accountability whilst retaining the pre-eminence of the Commons, the independence of the upper house, and the expertise of independent crossbenchers.  That is tricky, but certainly not impossible.  How might it be done?

First, the pre-eminence of the House of Commons rests in practice on the elected House having a monopoly on supply - the voting of money to government. It was the stretching of that provision by the Lords, when they voted down a benefit reduction measure announced in the Budget, that sparked the most recent proposals.  Reinforcing that limitation, whilst retaining the provisions of the Parliament Acts to ensure the Commons can get its way in the end, would be perfectly possible.

Second, greater independence of legislators could be secured within an elected system through the use of longer terms of office. Even without these, evidence from the Commons shows MPs are increasingly displaying independence of mind.  But the other advantage of longer terms is that it would allow election of a proportion of the upper house to take place alongside General Elections, in a similar way to the US Senate, which elects in thirds.  The Commons would thus always have the fresher democratic mandate.

Finally, how would an elected system preserve the valued expertise currently present in the Lords?  The presence of former senior Cabinet Ministers, businesspeople, retired Trade Union leaders, Generals and Cabinet Secretaries all enrich scrutiny of government. In a system of election from party lists, many of these would continue to be selected by parties to serve.  To retain those who would not accept a party affiliation or normally seek election, more ingenuity would be required, but it is not an impossible task.

One option would be for the Independent House of Lords Appointment Commission, which currently recommends cross-bench peers for their expertise and standing, to continue to nominate a proportion of the new House, either as full members, non-voting members, or members of a specialist Grand Committee that would consider legislation in an advisory capacity.  Alternatively, the Appointments Commission could choose candidates to be put forward for election alongside the party nominees, to fill a fixed quota of independent members. The public could be invited to contribute to the nomination process, making a reality of what has previously been described as a system of “people’s peers”.

None of these proposals would fundamentally change the character or role of the House of Lords as it currently exists.  It would remain a revising chamber, comprised predominantly of experienced people from politics, business and public life.  But they would owe their position to election by the people, and to a process of selection more transparent than the current whim of party leaders, who often face justified criticism for their appointments.

Attacks on ‘the political establishment’ and ‘the elite’ have been a prominent part of the arguments around the UK’s departure from the EU. Whether or not such criticisms are fair, they are much harder to rebut when a sizable part of our parliament remains unelected. If we want to defend the establishment, we need to put our own (upper) house in order.