Does the UK really need such an enlarged, undemocratic second house for this scrutinising purpose? Is there not a better way to better represent British citizens beyond the fluctuating 5-year terms of the Commons?
I’m hardly the first to say that the British House of Lords is outdated and in dire need of a changing about. The Electoral Reform Society tends to be spot on discussing these things, and several ideas have been put forward over recent years by almost every party save the Conservatives.
The UK has the world’s second-largest second house, and it is entirely unelected: even defenders of the current system admit that doesn’t sell it that well. Both the Commons and Lords currently meet in the run-down and undersized Palace of Westminster. For 650 MPs in the Commons, there are just over 400 seats. The problem for the Lords is even worse, as their membership is not fixed.
In a ‘bicameral’ system like that of the UK (‘bicameral’ referring to the two houses), we use one house of parliament to propose and define laws (the Commons, a.k.a. the famous one where PMQs happen) and the other to scrutinise these laws, holding to account any attempts to misuse power or pass laws which benefit one group over another.
Does the UK really need such an enlarged, undemocratic second house for this scrutinising purpose? Is there another way to better represent British citizens beyond the fluctuating 5-year terms of the Commons?
What is the House of Lords? Who occupies it?
Approximately 800 Lords currently occupy the House of Lords, but the number almost changes day to day. Despite their size, the Lords rarely have the power to prevent a bill from becoming law, ever since the 1911 Parliament Act neutered what little power they had left. In fact, that Act passed over 100 years ago contained a clause saying that the present system was only ever supposed to be temporary:
“…whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”
The Lords currently receive no annual salary, but tax-free daily allowance and expenses are paid. It could be worse, admittedly: there were 1330 members in 1999! Nonetheless, we have almost twice as many Lords as we can physically fit in the chamber. How does this make any sense?
26 of them are ‘Lords Spiritual’, occupying seats reserved for senior members of the Church of England. Around 244/208 Lords are Tory/Labour respectively, with 174 crossbenchers, 108 Lib Dems and a smattering of other like the Greens’ Jenny Jones, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb. Some of the minor parties’ proportions of lords and MPs actually match up pretty well (2 Lords for Plaid Cymru, for example).
None of the Lords are elected, though 92 hereditary peers elect roles amongst themselves
What are the options for reforming/replacing the Lords?
1. Appointment (current system) – The Lords’ one strength is that it contains a whole raft of individuals with specialist knowledge and experience from the worlds of commerce, medicine, the services, the civil service, academia, the unions… none of whom would be likely to be available to stand for election. (I’m paraphrasing Lord Steel, former Alliance leader, in 2007).
That said, these experts are (even by the nature of being experts) disproportionately old, form a small amount of the Lords overall, and are part-time. Even when they do turn up, they have very little power to do anything to a government bill.
2. Abolition – Like Scandinavian countries or unicameral (one-house) assemblies like Holyrood and Stormont, we move to using parliamentary committees for scrutiny.
2. Allotment (random selection) – This would involve taking a random selection of British citizens from the electoral register to serve in the Lords, rather like jury duty in a courtroom. This is a nice idea (and would certainly get rid of political party allegiance) but is, in reality, difficult to pull off: sparing time for jury duty is one thing, but putting your life on hold for several years of a parliamentary term? Not going to happen.
4. A combination of elections and appointments – The simplest, changing-least and thus the most frequently discussed but depressing option
5. Indirect election – Using elected figures from normal elections (aka MPs, MSP/MLA/AMs and MEPs) to form an electoral college who would, in turn, elect second house members, e.g., as happens in France and ROI. Not a bad system but could be more representative democratically and could do with keeping those few appointed experts of the current system
6. The Lord Steel way:
Establish a new upper house – ‘The Senate’ with 450 senators. Just after each general election (every 5 years), 1/3 of the senators (150 of them) are elected, each with a 15 year term.
The electoral college for this would be that year’s new MPs, the sitting MEPs, and the Welsh AMs / Scottish MSPs / Northern Ireland MLAs.
Supposed to be one of the best compromises between all options, Steel’s proposals are simple, cheap, please the most reformers and conservatives alike, and they give the HOL the right amount of power whilst avoiding it being too concentrated in London (the electoral college is pan-British). 450 senators could be squeezed into the chamber if necessary, though being part-time means this would rarely need to happen.
Steel imagined these senators having a part-time, unpaid role with a register of declared interests, allowing them to continue in their respective fields of expertise whilst serving as Lords. At any one time, 150 senators would be the ‘new’ intake, 150 more would be 5-10 years ‘old’ and 150 would be in the final third of their 15 year term: the elections/terms would be held at the same time as Britain’s fixed 5-year general elections, for simplicity and cost-saving.
The “Senate” name is good – Steel proposed it, like many others, to avoid the embarrassingly old-fashioned, undemocratic title of ‘Lords’…
“so that so-called Lords are spared the embarrassment of the title”.
One of the only significant drawbacks would be deciding who the 300 ‘old’ Lords would be when introducing this system: it would take 3 electoral cycles for all 450 Senators to be elected.
What do you think of Steel’s plan and the other options? Should the UK abolish the Lords altogether, make a few changes or just leave it alone and hide under a rock? Let us at PMP know what your suggestions are!