What is the current situation in the Lords?
Primarily the Lords acts as a deliberative and scrutinising chamber, providing specialist advice and playing an essential role in making laws. Lords also hold limited powers to propose, revise and delay legislation. However, the Lords cannot currently claim legitimacy and to be representing the public as they have not been elected. Members are appointed by the government and appointments are often made on the basis of political patronage. All new appointments are for life. Additionally, bishops are automatically made members and a number of hereditary peers remain. In total, the Lords currently stands at 790 peers eligible to sit, an unusually large second chamber.
What is the problem?
In a democracy, everyone who makes laws should be elected by the people and be capable of being thrown out by voters. The current House of Lords lacks legitimacy as members are appointed rather than elected. As these are appointments for life, the chamber also lacks a system to hold members accountable to the public. The Lords cannot claim to be representing the public, even though they have considerable influence over law making. Membership is skewed towards London and the South East, meaning that the chamber does not currently represent the whole of the UK equally.
A distinctive feature of the House of Lords is that members should be able to exercise independence which contrasts with many members of the House being former MPs or having a partisan background. The ever-growing size of the second chamber also poses a problem as the Lords could perform its deliberative and scrutinising functions at a smaller size if attendance was also made a priority. Even with a low attendance rate, members are still able to use public resources and make tax free expenses claims of up to £300 a day.
Reform of the House of Lords also has significant public support. Opinion polls show that the public overwhelmingly support Lords reform with the view that the House of Lords should mostly be composed of elected members. In 2007, ICM conducted a poll on behalf of Unlock Democracy where 63% supported a fully elected second chamber. More recently, a YouGov poll commissioned by Unlock Democracy found that 69% of voters support a reformed House of Lords.
What is the solution?
In summary, we propose:
- A fully directly elected second chamber, elected in halves for 8-10 year terms.
- A reduction in size to between 250-350 members.
- Experts to be brought in through the committee system.
- Maintaining a clear distinction between the House of Commons and the second chamber, ensuring the primacy of the Commons.
- A probationary period between being elected to the House of Commons after being elected to the Lords and vice versa.
- Government ministers not being allowed to sit in the second chamber.
- No reserved places for religious representatives.