"The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it"
Aneurin Bevan

Sunday, 16 January 2011

House of Lords

The Parliament Act 1911 asserted the supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords. Of course, at the time, since half of the population was excluded from voting in elections for the House of Commons, this is not quite the case of democracy winning over the hereditary principle and patronage, but it was almost there. Since then, there has long been a campaign to abolish or further reform the House of Lords, and these are my thoughts on the subject.

As a result of the Parliament Act (and subsequent acts) the primary aim of the Lords is as a revising chamber: the members scrutinise laws and suggest amendments. The Commons usually accepts the Lords amendments, but they don't have to. In addition, the Salisbury Convention is that the Lords should not block government bills that were mentioned in the government's manifesto. This scrutinising of bills is very important and helps to prevent bad laws being made.

Lords reform has a long history, but the main issues that people cite are privilege and patronage. The privilege issue comes from the fact that some of the Lords are hereditary and their membership of the House is based on an accident of birth: they happen to be their father's child. The House of Lords Act 1999 partially fixed this by removing the right of all but 92 hereditary peers. The problem is that there are still 92 people in that chamber who are there because of who their father was, rather than on their own abilities. When one of these Lords dies there is an election between the members of the Lords to determine which hereditary peer will take up the place. This partially breaks the hereditary principle on the membership of the Lords, but it is hardly democracy since the hereditary principle is used to determine the "candidates" for the vacant post.

The patronage issue comes from the fact that the rest of the Lords are appointed life peers. The majority of new peers are recommended by the political parties and these recommendations are vetted by the Independent Appointments Commission. The Commission also recommends non-party political members. The problem is that this system is wide open to political patronage highlighted by the cash-for-peerages scandal where party donations were sought with an offer of a place in the House of Lords. 

The usual argument is that if the House of Lords is wholly elected then these issues of privilege and patronage will disappear. The problem with this approach is that modern politics is all about privilege and patronage. While there are some MPs who have been elected through their own hard work, there are many who were selected as a candidate in a safe seat through patronage. And there are several MPs who are the children, siblings or even spouses of MPs, so one could argue that there is some hereditary principle in the Commons too!

However, my main concern is what we will miss if we make the Lords wholly elected. Many of the life peers are there because of what they have achieved: scientists, musicians, artists, doctors, people who have run charities. It also has Lords who were judges, and there are bishops of the Church of England (and by convention, the Chief Rabbi is a member). There is a wealth of experience and knowledge in this collection of people and the expert nature of the chamber is ideal for an organisation whose main purpose is to scrutinise and amend legislation. If the upper chamber is elected it is unlikely that these people will wish to stand for election, for the simple reason that they are not politicians. The result of elections to the upper chamber is that we will merely get a mirror image of the House of Commons. Some people have suggested that a different election process should be used, and this could even cause the problem of the upper chamber claiming it has more legitimacy than the Commons because of its election process.

So I propose that the House of Lords should remain wholly appointed. You may think that this is against my democratic instincts, but it is not, as I will explain. First, there must be some tidying up. The House of Lords should be revising only and so after reform legislation only originate in the Commons. There should also be rules about how long bills can be delayed (currently it is one year). The new chamber will also have no hereditary Lords (or rather, none there because of their title).

The new House of Lords will be by appointment, but without political patronage. The important point is that the people nominated for appointment to the House of Lords will be elected by membership organisations. The Independent Appointments Commission will determine which membership organisations will provide nominations, and then appoint their nominations to the House. The appointments should be fixed term and require a renewed approval of their membership organisation (I am not in favour of term limits, but open to be persuaded if there are any good reasons). There could also be a right of recall to take into account situations when a Lord has proven to be unsuitable. If the Commons has fixed term parliaments then the Lords appointments should be of a different cycle (so if the Commons is 5 years, the Lords appointments could be for 3 or 7 years). Rather than appointing the House all in one go, and to keep some continuity, the appointments should be staggered (say, a third at a time).

So what sort of membership organisations would nominate peers? I suggest it should be a wide range, but the important point is that there is a membership. This will mean that trades unions, churches, charities and professional organisations can nominate members. So the Royal Colleges of medicine will have a member each, as will the Chartered Institute of Accountants, the Institute of Physics, RSPCA and the National Trust. The Inns of Court and other lawyers organisations will ensure that there are some legal experts in the chamber. Special care would be taken to make sure that most religions have a member. In addition, organisations like the AA and RAC and sports organisations like the Amateur Athletics Association will have members. The whole point is to ensure that as wide a range of experts as possible are in the chamber.

Each organisation must hold a ballot of their members, in effect, they will do this to nominate their most expert member who will provide their knowledge of their area of expertise to make our laws better.

This will make sure that political patronage is removed almost entirely from the process, while maintaining a chamber of experts elected by their peers. If the range of membership organisations who provide nominations is kept as wide as possible, then it means that everyone in the country will have at least one opportunity to vote for a nomination, and this will give some democratic legitimacy to the appointment.


  1. I have thought that this kind of approach is the way forward for some time.

    What do you think the chances of it actually happening are though?

  2. Chance of it happening? Nowt, but one can fantasise.

    But note that while all of these modernisers are talking about electing the HoL because an appointed chamber is "undemocratic" they omit to address the issue of the Privy Council. The council is appointed too. It has power, it is secretive and politicians want to be appointed to it. Just like the HoL really ;-)