UK Politics

Is the House of Lords a Bad Thing?

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On 2 February, Peter Cruddas, who has donated millions to the Tories and Vote Leave campaign, was appointed by Boris Johnson to the House of Lords. This move by the Prime Minister and the “buying” of political appointments once again raises concerns over our nations unelected second house and the potential threat seats-for-favours has on our democracy. 


Democracy

Most countries have a separate lower and upper house – for example, the House of Representatives and the Senate in the United States – and the United Kingdom is no exception with the House of Commons and the House of Lords. 

How the UK differs from other democracies is that we only vote for the lower house with the Lords being comprised of a mixture of 92 hereditary peers, 26 Bishops, retired politicians, business leaders, and whoever Boris Johnson owes a favour (e.g., a Russian media mogul, a donor, his bother, and many more). 

The majority (790 vs 650) of politicians in this country are unelected.  One of the main accusations levied against the European Union by Eurosceptics is that the European Union run by “unelected bureaucrats” however this can not be further from the truth as the EU’s member are democratically elected.

Michael Crick writing for the MailPlus, satirically suggested that peerage was based on public actions, with some proceeds going to charity. Based on the appointment of Cruddes and Blaire’s cash-for-honours scandal, the ultrawealthy are buying our democracy anyway, so it might as well be done out in the open. 

Elitism

Politics in this country is elitist, and the government admits this. 29% of MPs went to a private school, four times higher than the public, with almost one in 10 coming from Eton. But at least MPs are elected, which is lower than the Lords (at 57%). Moreover, hereditary peers just given their positions based solely on family titles. 

The application processes for hereditary peers highlight this. When applying for new jobs or university, we would have to send a CV and personal statement. But to become a Hereditary peer, the process is much simpler. All you need is the right pedigree and a personal statement. Some personal statements include poems about flamingos, and others don’t bother submitting one (see 4:55-5:59 in this report by Channel 4 News). 

A theocracy in a secular state

Like some other countries, the UK has a state religion – Anglicanism. Now, in itself, it is not a problem. The UK is a Christian monarchy, with the Queen being the head of state and the head of the official religion

However, the UK is the only country other than Iran and the Vatican City that reserves seats for appointed religious leaders. Twenty-six seats in the Lord’s is given to Bishops of the Church of England (CoE). 

The UK is becoming increasingly secular, with only 1% of young people subscribing to the CoE. But even almost the over-75’s, the most religious age group, only about a third are CoE. So it is hard to argue that having Bishops in the House of Lord’s is even necessary based on the beliefs of British citizens.

Cost

Peers can claim an attendance allowance (like students get but considerably more) of £323 a day tax-free each day they attend, or £157 per day if they don’t turn up, plus travel costs. Between April 2019 and March 2020, £17.7 million was spent on allowances and expenses, with the average peer claiming £30,687. A list of how much each member of the Lord’s claims a mouth is freely available on the UK Parliament website

Expenses scandals have also racked the Lords. Unfortunately, however, expenses scandals also plague the Commons (see the 2009 expenses scandal). Still, at least the MPs are more accountable for their actions being punished by the electorate, but the same democratic pressures do not exist for unelected peers. 

Public opinion 

The public opinion of the House of Lords is overwhelming negative. According to a 2020 poll conducted by Survation on behalf of the Electoral Reform Society, support for the Lords is only 12%. However, one opinion poll, especially one done on behalf of a society with an anti-Lords bias, is not enough to gauge what people think.  

YouGov has been tracking public opinion on how the second house should be made up and as of April 2021, 51% think it should be wholly elected, 21% believe it should be a mixture of appoints and elections, with only 8% supporting the current model with support for a mixed (31% in 2019) approach decreasing over time in support of a fully elected chamber.  

Support for significant reforms to the Lords is supported by voters and politicians across the political spectrum – from Lib Dems to the SNP and even Farage

Quick fire-round

List from the Electoral Reform Society

  • Only 31 peers are under 50.
  • Only 28% of female.
  • Move votes are along party lines away, so it might as well be elected
  • It’s too big (second largest after China)
  • Most are from London, South East and East of England, so lack of geographic diversity. 

Conclusion

Having an upper house is essential for a democracy. Regarding the US Senate, George Washington gave the metaphor of the upper house being “the saucer that cools the coffee” that questions any decisions made by the lower house. 

Even though I and others have a negative view of the House of Lords, many of its peers try to better this country.  The Lords have done a long list of good things and this needs to be remembered. 

But the Lords in its current state is not up to the standards of modern liberal democracy. It is undemocratic, theocratic, expensive, and worst of all, peerage is a commodity that can be brought if you have enough money and the right connections.

Image courtesy of UK Parliament via Flickr

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