House of Lords reform: A piecemeal solution to a seismic issue is not good enough

Unlock Democracy has long campaigned for a democratically elected second chamber. The Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the House of Lords recently published a report on its findings and recommendations. While the report proposes long-needed reforms and is a step in the right direction, it deliberately ignores the issue of how members of the second chamber should be selected. Disappointingly therefore, it only offers a piecemeal approach to reforming the second chamber rather than offering the radical, wholesale solutions we need to make the chamber fit for a twenty-first-century democracy.

The report has come at a time when the House of Lords has been embroiled in a new expenses scandal, with research showing some peers have claimed more than £400k despite not contributing to debates or submitting questions. At a time of public sector cuts and austerity, this left a bitter taste for many. Whilst this is problematic in and of itself, it damages the reputation of Parliament and is also a sign of deeper, structural problems. As peers are unpaid there is no clear role description or clear expectations of what levels of attendance are acceptable.  Some treat it simply as an honour and rarely attend Parliament, some peers only attend when relevant to their professional expertise whilst others are full time and take part in the vast majority of debates and serve on committees.  Also as peers are unelected, there is very limited accountability and the public has no resources to take action when scandals arise. 

There is a strong and pressing case for reforming the House of Lords. Unlock Democracy wholly supports the existence of a second chamber that can scrutinise legislation and hold the government to account. However, while it remains an unelected body the House of Lords will lack the democratic legitimacy to robustly challenge or block legislation. It will always be open to the charge that it is undermining the “will of the people” as represented by members of the House of Commons. This impairs its ability to effectively scrutinise and hold the government to account.

In February of this year, Unlock Democracy published the blog  “A House of Lords fit for the twenty-first century” in which we proposed three main changes that the House should undertake to be fit for a modern democracy. Those were:

  1. A fully elected second chamber
  2. The abolition of all reserved places
  3. No seats for life

In their report, the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the House tackles only one of the three main problems presented by Unlock Democracy. It acknowledges that it is not sustainable to maintain seats for life. In the words of the Lord Speaker: 

As it currently is, the House is too big. A smaller, more effective House will be able to strengthen public confidence and build support for our vital constitutional role.

The report therefore advocates setting a 15 year fixed-term for all new members of the House - although this does not apply to current members. It proposes a gradual change by the guiding principle of “two-out, one-in”. By this new standard, one half of all departures (retirements and deaths) would not replaced, and the other half would be allocated between parties on a fair basis. Under this system, the House of Lords would reach the target of having 600 members - 50 less than the current House of Commons - by 2028.

As well as requiring the agreement of new members to retire after 15 years, this new system would require agreement of the Prime Minister not to appoint more than the specified number of peers. Most peers are appointed through the patronage of the Prime Minister or another party leader. They use this patronage to encourage MPs to retire, reward the party faithful, party donors and sometimes even their friends and flatmates.  David Cameron in particular appointed peers at a very fast rate. Will party leaders, and specifically the PM, be willing to limit their power in this way?

These recommendations are a clear step in the right direction. However, it is disappointing that once again fundamental issues of democratic legitimacy - such as maintaining reserved places, or that the House of Lords is not elected by voters - are left untouched. Under the proposed system, hereditary peers and bishops still get to keep their places in the House of Lords, continuing a system that selects on the basis of bloodline or religious beliefs - practices which are not fit for a modern democracy. 

What can you do?

Unlock Democracy believes that we need an elected second chamber. This would improve the way our democracy works. If you also think this, sign up to our mailing list or become a member to get the latest news on our campaigns.