In the wake of the EU referendum, public attention has been aroused by suggestions that the House of Lords could be the forum to block Brexit. Were they to do so, would this make it the right time to reform or even abolish the upper chamber?
The House of Lords is currently the second most populous legislative chamber in the world, only behind China. It has the largest head count of any chamber in the democratic world.
To summarise the statistics, the House of Lords is currently made up of almost 700 life peers, those being nominated by the Prime Minister. Additionally, there are up to 92 hereditary peers, those who have inherited ancestral titles. A further 26 are bishops.
Among the group of life peers are sports people who have achieved great things. There are also representatives of the legal profession, trade unionists, business people and other who have contributed to society. There is also a raft of failed and/or retired politicians, among them several expenses cheats.
There have been several half hearted attempts over the years at reforming the House of Lords. The most recent Act was in 2014 which merely created the opportunity to retire from the Lords and for members to be disqualified or removed.
The last major reform was under Tony Blair in 1999, which limited the number of hereditary peers. Following the House of Lords Act that year, the number of active peers was reduced from 1,330 to 669. Since then the number has grown again to 805, up by 15%. Each of the 3 Prime Ministers since and before Theresa May have flooded the ermine clad benches, there being over 850 who are either active or inactive. Cameron alone appointed 263 including his resignation honours.
Given those numbers, a perspective might be given of attendances. In the year after Blair’s reforms, the average number of peers attending was 352 per day. At the time of the formation of a coalition government, this was up to 388 per day, a rise of just over 10%. By the time of Cameron’s resignation, the increase was to 497, a further rise of over 28%.
Those statistics generate a number of arguments.
At a time when they civil service and indeed the country have been subject to austerity, the Prime Minister has been able to appoint chums to a life of indulgence. Cameron did nothing to reduce the cost of government, at the same time as reforming state sector pensions, with the exception of parliament. They average cost of an active peer is over £130,000 each year in allowances and expenses.
At 805 members, it is hard to justify why the 21st biggest country by population should have the 2nd largest chamber, over 8 times the size of USA who have 5 times the population. The fact that is has grown so much since 1999 makes it hard to disagree that patronage is the wrong means for allocating seats. Incidentally, there is a maximum seating of 400.
Anyone who even casually watches proceedings in the upper chamber will find it hard to believe the average attendance. It would be easier to believe the anecdotal stories of peers turning up to sign in whilst the taxi is left running. £300 per day might corroborate allegations aimed at the former Commons’ expenses cheats. There is rarely, if ever, standing room only.
Clearly, any future reform has to be directed at the number of Lords.
There are some alternate perspectives. No single party has a majority in the Lords. . Currently, it might be argued that the balance of power is held by the 26 bishops, 178 crossbenchers and 30 otherwise non-affiliated members. In the case of the former, the nation is afforded a moral compass, as for the others, they can vote with their conscience and on the quality of potential legislation. Independence of members has some attraction.
It may be a surprise to note how frequently the Lords have sent bills back to the Commons for amendment. In the last session alone, there have been 60 defeats involving 17 bills and other regulations.
Perhaps the most high profile of those was on in work tax credits. On that single issue, it seems reasonable to expect that the majority of the population would support the vote by the Lords. In fact, it is hard to argue that any recent defeats were anything less than appropriate measures to curb the excesses of a rash government with a working majority that could potentially last for 5 years under the fixed term Parliament Act.
On tax credits, the Cameron axis of government attempted to push through something which, if put to a public vote, would undoubtedly be defeated. This was also specifically against the electoral promises made by Cameron and his team.
Further analysis of those defeats suggests that collectively, the Lords have acted to uphold democracy and protect rights. Sundry Lords select committees also exhibit detailed and independent analysis of current events and policies. Not all that the lords do is bad and in fact much is for the greater good.
So how can we summarise the House of Lords? Certainly it is overpopulated. It is a retirement home for failed politicians and expenses cheats. It has also become a vehicle for unprincipled leaders to reward back scratching. Most importantly, as a revising chamber, it is a vital component in restricting the power of governments which go too far.
This makes the question of how to reform the House of Lords fraught with potential debate.
Some simple principles might apply. At this point, it should also be acknowledged that the House of Lords is unrepresentative in many ways; the predominance of men over women by a ratio of 3:1, the wealth profile and the age profile to name but three.
Firstly, there needs to be a multi tier peerage profile. Honours can be given to those who have excelled and served the public in many spheres. That does not have to be accompanied by entitlement to legislate. Indeed, not all hereditary peers have the right to sit. Extension of that principle would be no novel act.
There also has to be a time limit on how long those entitlements to legislate can apply. Under the current framework, a government has to submit itself to the electorate for 5 years. A peer is in the Lords potentially for life, regardless of competence.
Allowances should only be paid for all day attendance, clocking in before the start of proceedings and confirmed by attendance at a percentage of all votes, 80% does not seem unreasonable.
Numbers should be reduced to a manageable level. It is hard to justify a figure of more than 400 active members, a comfortable seat each if they are to actually attend debates. On that basis, those attending the least can therefore be moved to the non-voting tier of Lords, to be reduced further as a democratic component is introduced.
That democratic component should number between 50% and 75% (to be agreed) which can be elected in between general elections and on a proportional representation basis, reflecting the democratic profile of the electorate. Such elections would hopefully provide a more reflective demographic profile.
The balance, quite rightly, should reflect the moral compass of the country. Bishops should be retained. £300 is a reasonable fee for legal professionals to scrutinise potential legislation. The balance of power should be held by those without other vested interests.
The need for reform is obvious, the solution can be simple, reducing the cost and abuses whilst retaining the brake on a government which exceeds its powers.