Unlock Democracy’s submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee inquiry House of Lords reform: what next?
About Unlock Democracy
Unlock Democracy is the UK’s leading campaign for democracy, rights and freedoms. A grassroots movement, we are owned and run by our members. In particular, we campaign for fair, open and honest elections, stronger Parliament and accountable government, and a written constitution. We want to bring power closer to the people and create a culture of informed political interest and responsibility. Unlock Democracy runs the Elect the Lords campaign to campaign for an elected second chamber. For more information about Unlock Democracy please see www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk
1 Unlock Democracy campaigns for a fully elected second chamber. We believe that members of the UK Parliament should be accountable to the people of the UK and that the most pressing reform of the House of Lords is the need to introduce democratic legitimacy. It is now over 100 years since the Parliament Act 1911 was passed as a temporary measure until an elected second chamber could be introduced. However we recognise that the government has chosen not to seek to progress the House of Lords Reform Bill so democratic reform of the second chamber is not possible within this parliament.
2 Unlock Democracy understands the Committee’s desire to find into what smaller-scale changes to the membership and structure of the House of Lords would be likely to command a consensus. Many of the ideas being explored by the committee seem sensible straightforward at first glance. However in reality what appear to be small scale changes would in practice fundamentally change the nature of membership of the House of Lords and alter the composition of the House without any consideration of its appropriate powers; an approach that opponents of reform in both Houses criticised when the House of Lords reform Bill was debated.
3 Many of these proposals have been debated extensively before, such as in the work of the Leader’s Group which lead to the introduction of the voluntary retirement scheme, or in various versions of the Steel Bill. However this does not mean that they command a consensus. Indeed it should be noted that a number of the proposals in the original Steel Bill have now been amended or dropped entirely precisely because they were unable to command a consensus.
4 We recognise that there are many peers who are dissatisfied with the size of the current chamber and the impact this has on work in the second chamber. The House of Lords is one of the largest second chambers in the world. With 764 eligible members as of March 2013 it is twice as large as the French Senate, the next largest chamber and seven times larger than the Canadian Senate. All proposals for fundamental reform of the House of Lords have recognised this and recommended a substantially smaller second chamber. Most recently the government’s House of Lords Reform Bill proposed a chamber of 300 members although this was increased to 450 members after consideration by Joint Committee.
5 We are sympathetic to their desire to resolve this. However we do not believe this can be done through small scale changes as once you start to unpick the elements of the current settlement, it opens up issues which can only be addressed by the introduction of an elected second chamber.
6 In our view, the only way to meaningfully reduce the size of the chamber in an effective way that is fair to all parties is to limit its size in statute. Such a measure is likely to be as vociferously opposed by the House of Lords as democratic reform was and most of the arguments employed against democratic reform would also apply.
7 There are also issues not currently being considered by this inquiry that Unlock Democracy believes it is essential that should be addressed as a matter of urgency, in particular the issue of members of the House of Lords working as paid lobbyists.
8 Unlike in the House of Commons, there are no rules to prevent peers working as paid lobbyists to influence the UK government. One of the most controversial cases was Lord Blencathra who had been working as a paid lobbyist for the Cayman Islands . This work included lobbying the Chancellor to reduce the burden of air passenger transport taxes on the Caymans Islands and facilitating an all-expenses-paid trip to the Caymans for three senior MPs with an interest in the islands. Nothing that Lord Blencathra did broke any of the existing rules - he declared the Directorship in the register of members interests and never directly raised the Cayman Islands in debate or in the course of his parliamentary work. However the fact remains that whilst being a voting member of the UK legislature, he was also being paid by a foreign government to lobby the UK government. This is simply not acceptable. Nor is Lord Blencathra the only peer who is also a paid lobbyist; this is not restricted to one person or even one party. There are a number of peers who work for multi client lobbying agencies and as well as some who work as in house lobbyists. Research conducted by the Guardian found that nearly one in every five staff passholders in the House of Lords is involved in lobbying .
9 Peers acting as paid lobbyists damages the reputation of the House of Lords and of Parliament as a whole. The committee has already considered the case for a statutory register of lobbyists and we recognise that this falls beyond the scope of the current inquiry. However if there are to be changes to the House of Lords, then we would strongly argue that peers’ lobbying activities should be more strictly regulated, and that working for or being a director of a multi-client lobbying or public affairs agency be banned outright.
10 Members of the House of Commons are also able to take on additional employment and although this can be problematic it does not raise the same issues as with peers. The demands on an MP’s time are much greater and they receive a salary in recompense. The daily attendance allowance is not intended to function as a salary for members of the second chamber. The daily attendance allowance is intended to be compensation for lost earnings due to serving in the House of Lords. In a number of cases, this is palpably not the case, and in fact serves as an additional tax free income for those peers fortunate enough to have a full time job in close proximity to Parliament. In our view, members of the House of Lords who opt to claim the attendance allowance must sign a statement confirming that they are not earning an income from any other source on that day.
The desirability, practicality and effectiveness of mechanisms for reducing the size of the House of Lords, including the following:
no longer replacing hereditary peers in the House of Lords when they die;
11 The delay in completing reform of the second chamber has created the interesting constitutional position whereby there are some elections for membership of the House of Lords but the only people able to stand and vote in these elections are hereditary peers. Unlock Democracy regrets that it is still possible to claim a seat in the UK legislature on the basis of birth and would like to see this practice end. Such a move would require primary legislation.
12 However the Wetherill agreement allows for the presence of 92 hereditary peers until the second stage of reform. Despite the House of Commons voting in favour of creating an elected second chamber in both 2007 and in 2011, we have not yet reached that second stage of reform.
13 Removing the hereditary peers would significantly shift the political balance within the House of Lords, with 36 currently taking the Conservative whip, 5 sitting as Liberal Democrats and 4 sitting as Labour. Since 1997, appointments to the House of Lords have been conducted to broadly reflect the share of the vote at the previous general election, and this was made explicit in the 2010 coalition agreement . This will mean that their removal will either require yet more appointments to be made to ensure balance and thereby fail to resolve the fundamental issue of the size of the second chamber, or require a commensurate number of Labour life peers to be removed to retain balance. We do not believe that such a move is likely to be supported by the second chamber itself.