UK Politics

In Defence of the House of Lords

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The House of Lords is a quintessentially British institution that fascinates many. Its throne, its ermine-clad (only once a year!) members, appointed by the Queen and its size being comparable to the Chinese National People’s Congress are just some of the reasons it creates intrigue.

The Upper House has been controversial for well over a century, understandably. The idea that in 2020 half of the Westminster Parliament, the inspiration for many democracies around the world, is unelected seems antiquated. It was only until 1999 that it comprised hereditary peers able to make laws just because their great-great-great grandfather fought a war you haven’t heard of. Thankfully, that element has been largely reformed to only include a relatively small group of hereditary peers, chosen by the other appointed peers.

Despite these quirks that British politics is often famous for, the House of Lords should not be scrapped, or turned into an elected house, as many ‘democrats’ suggest it should be. The House of Lords serves a unique role in our political system and its noble members do not get enough credit. That is not to say that elements of the Upper House should not be reformed (the fact that one of the newest peers is set to be the Prime Minister’s brother is slightly concerning).

Churchill once said that ‘democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried’, and he was right. The Lords should not become our primary legislative chamber, but just because it is unelected does not strip it of any merit.

The very fact that it is the unelected sibling of the Commons solves some of the problems that the Commons, by its elected nature, faces. These include failures to work cross-party due to the oppositional nature of the Commons, elective dictatorship, occasional lack of expertise of MPs and the lack of time MPs sometimes give to scrutinise legislation.

House of Experts

It has been argued that the name ‘House of Lords’ should be ditched in favour of the label ‘Senate’ or some other more appropriate name for the 21st century. The existing name does not do the chamber any favours with a public who are generally disenchanted with politicians and lavishness, precisely the image that the Lords conveys (think ermine gowns, the huge golden Throne and terminology such as ‘my noble Lord’).

This image of the Lords is misguided. Since the House of Lords Act 1999 abolished hereditary peers, it is a modern House, albeit with more elderly members than some other legislatures. The elderly nature of the Lords is to be expected because, to be elevated to the peerage, a person must be an expert in an area of society, whether that be the arts, politics, finance or manufacturing. Experts tend to be older people who have had this experience.

Its role in relation to the Commons is as a revising chamber, that is focused on scrutinising the detail of legislation that is primarily drawn up in the Commons. As peers are not focused on re-election or the media as much as their elected counterparts in the Commons, they have the time to use their expertise and passion to ensure legislation is as effective as it can be. They consider things that many MPs simply do not have the breadth and depth of knowledge to comment on.

The expertise of the Lords can also be seen in its select committees. Before the Supreme Court replaced it, the Lords used to be the highest court in the land. It has a legal expertise envious of many other legislatures and allows it to focus on particularly contentious areas of legislation, such as Brexit, devolution and constitutional matters. This is how the Lords can highlight problems with legislation and hold the Commons and Government to account in a way that MPs could not do. A prime example of this was how the Lords’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee helped to prevent a ‘statutory instrument’ being implemented by the government that would have cut billions of pounds of benefits without any debate or discussion in the Commons. This is a prime example of how one of the key roles of the Lords is to ask the Commons to ‘think again’.

This scrutinising role that the Lords plays complements the work of the Commons and, if it were to be an elected chamber, it would replicate many of the problems of the Commons and remove this unique role that the Lords plays.

Some will argue that the Lords, within a democracy, should not have any say over legislation that affects citizens as they cannot be voted out. This is a non-argument as, due to Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 the Commons has the power to overrule the Lords ever since the Upper House tried to prevent the ‘People’s Budget’ from being passed.

Should the Lords be reformed?

The Lords should not be reformed to become another elected chamber. This does not mean it should not be reformed in other ways. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, cronyism whereby the Prime Minister can request that the Sovereign appoint certain individuals to the Lords is a problem when there is a conflict of interest.

The size of the Lords is a problem. Having 772 members is unnecessary and has also led to allegations of sleaze where members turn up to a debate, do not contribute and claim their £250 daily payment. Lords who do not contribute, but receive payments from the taxpayer, should not be able to sit. This would help to solve issues of sleaze and the size of the chamber.

Other measures that the government should consider introducing are term limits (at present, Lords serve for life) and a ‘one in one out’ policy so that someone can be admitted only when another dies or retires. However, it is understandable that some governments want to appoint more peers due to the party imbalance and unrepresentativeness of the chamber (the Conservatives, despite a huge election victory, are in a minority in the Lords).

Finally, the question of Lords Spiritual should have permanent positions within the Lords is an anachronism that should be reviewed.

The House of Lords is an historic institution that is too often dismissed as a leftover from history and an unrepresentative place for elderly rich men to make some money. Despite the Lords’ lavish appearance, it is actually a very innovative way of operating a second chamber within a bicameral system.

The way it comprises of experts from all fields whose overriding priority is not getting re-elected, allows Lords to fully scrutinise and improve our laws. This quality of legislative scrutiny and its adeptness at certain areas of legislation, such as in constitutional matters, will only become more important as Brexit is implemented. 

To turn the Upper House into another elected chamber would replicate many of the problems that the House of Commons faces and remove the quality revision that legislation receives because of the Lords. That is not to say some reforms are not needed. Far from being undemocratic, the Parliament Acts ensure that the Lords complements the Commons and that it continues to play a vital role in enhancing our great democracy.

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