A House of Lords fit for the twenty-first century

Is there still a place for the House of Lords, a “very British institution,” at a time when the political rulebook is being torn up? This was the opening question in the premiere episode of ‘Meet the Lords,’ a new three part series that aired on BBC Two on Monday 27 February. While in principle, a second chamber in a bicameral system can play an important role scrutinising legislation and holding the lower chamber to account, what was forcefully demonstrated in the documentary was that the House of Lords is home to many archaic traditions that are remnants of a bygone era, which have no role to play in a modern democracy. Urgent reform is needed, if the House of Lords is to survive the twenty-first century.

Having an unelected second chamber, with places reserved for hereditary peers and the clergy, are quirks of the UK’s political system that have long since been banished in other well established democracies. The House of Lords is home to many anachronistic features, some of which are harmless, but many which are unquestionably unfit for a modern democracy. When a hereditary peer dies or resigns, for example, it is only hereditary peers who can run for the seat and vote in elections.

There is a strong and pressing case for reforming the House of Lord. With Brexit on the horizon, for example, the House of Lords will be called on to play a crucial role in reviewing EU-influenced law, a job which the House of Commons cannot undertake alone. A scrutinising chamber is needed, 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 robustly scrutinise and hold the government to account.

While defenders of the House of Lords hold it up as a place where specially appointed experts can use their expertise and knowledge to skillfully inform and guide legislation, the composition of the House of Lords better represents those who have paid patronage to political parties. As the Electoral Reform Society’s report, ‘House of Lords: Fact Vs Fiction’ highlighted, 34 per cent of members of the House of Lords used to work in politics, while there are twice as many peers who were staff of the Royal family than worked in manual or skilled labour.

The cash for honors scandal brought to prominence the practice of using a donation to leverage the bequeathment of a Peerage, and cast doubt as to whether the Lords were appropriately positioned to scrutinise the government. The House of Lords has become a stomping ground for party donors, former MPs, and lobbyists who are in the pocket of big business and working on behalf of corporate interests. In ‘Meet the Peers’ Lord Blunkett commented that many of those that roam the corridors of the House of Lords have been rewarded with Peerages for “opening their mouth or their purse at the right time,” emphasising again that framing all members as noble in the pursuit of scrutiny is a gloss over reality.

Electing the House of Lords is not a new idea. Parliament first endorsed the idea of an elected second chamber over a century ago in the preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act. A reformed House of Lords, with elected members, would compliment the House of Commons. It could provide important checks and balance on the power of the first chamber and the unusually powerful executive. The second chamber could also act as a ‘chamber of the union,’ providing representation for the nations and regions of the UK in Westminster.

So, where could we start with reform?

1. Abolish all reserved places: 

Having reserved places for hereditary peers and the clergy is an anachronistic throwback to a bygone era. There is no justification for reserving places for people based on their bloodline or their religious belief.

2. A fully elected second chamber:

In a democracy, everyone who makes laws should be elected by the people: they should be accountable to the people, and the voting public should be able to remove them from office. While democratic legitimacy is not solely determined by elections, the House of Lords needs to be elected if it is to properly play the role of scrutinising the House of Commons. Or else, its decisions or recommendations could always be overridden by the House of Commons, who can lay claim to be acting on the will of the people.

3. No seats for life

Unlock Democracy supports a system in which members of the second chamber are elected every 10 years. This would ensure the second chamber never has a newer mandate than the first and would give the chamber a longer term perspective.

The House of Lords can have an important role to play, and the House of Commons should be subject to scrutiny and held accountable for its actions. However, it will forever be prevented from effectively doing this job if it is open to the claim that its decisions are not democratically legitimate. We therefore need to reform the House of Lords now, and bring the second chamber into the twenty-first century.

Read our full FAQ on the House of Lords reform here.