The House of Lords is an institution within the British system of governance which today serves as the upper chamber in our bicameral political system. Its role is to act as a check and balance to the power of the House of Commons. It’s certainly not perfect, but it has developed and evolved since the very first “model parliament” of 1295.
Recently we have seen more calls than ever to see a proportion of the House of Lords become an elected body. This was last attempted via the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012. This bill was introduced by Nick Clegg to Parliament whilst he was Deputy Prime Minister – showing the scope of political power behind electoral reform of the House of Lords. Of course, this bill was quashed following opposition from within the Conservative Party, and rightfully so. Attempts to reform the House of Lords, to turn it into an elected body, must be opposed.
So why not an elected upper chamber? Well, primarily, the unelected nature allows the Lords to contain peers which otherwise would not be politically active and hence ensures that relevant expertise is incorporated directly into the law-making system of the United Kingdom. For example, peers like Lord Colwyn, who was a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and Royal Society of Medicine. Knowledge such as this is crucial in a parliamentary system which relies on reason to rule, rather than charisma and the ability to act as a politician.
Additionally, the tenure created in an unelected body means Lords do what is right, rather than appeal to populism in order to get elected. Sometimes what is right isn’t popular. It would be popular to reduce all taxes and increase spending by many within the electorate, but, obviously, such an action is not feasible by any means, and thus such an action could never be sanctioned by a member of the House of Lords with levels of intelligence that respective members should all have. They cannot fear campaigning for election; they are accountable to the nation and not the subsection of society that they would purport to represent.
The House of Lord’s appointed nature also means that scrutiny is properly administered regardless of the government in power. A politicised, elected, House of Lords could circumvent scrutiny from the lower chamber simply due to ideological concurrence with the party in power in the Commons, thus removing any real checks and balances. If we look at today’s political system and assume that a House of Lords would be elected in between the General Elections, then it would follow that there’s nothing to stop the Conservatives (for example) in this country being both the majority within the Commons and the Lords. Such an event would cause a severe conflict of interest relating to the aims of both chambers. Proper scrutiny would not be possible when party whips could easily threaten any Peers which act outside the party line with deselection or lowered campaign funds when it comes to the re-election due to their rebellious nature. If we turn our attention to the current state of affairs within the Labour Party, there have been various allegations of a potential mass deselection of Parliamentarians who aren’t loyal to Jeremy Corbyn – if true, such a situation could easily occur within an elected House of Lords.
A final reason why an elected chamber is unnecessary is because of the limitations already in place within the current system of governance. The Parliament Act of 1911 removed the ability for the House of Lords to use its suspensory veto and confirmed the supremacy of the elected House of Commons in doing so, meaning the House of Lords could only suspend and amend bills for a 2 year period. Additionally, it meant that all Money Bills presented to the Lords must be passed within 1 month, or they would be presented to Her Majesty regardless of the consent of the Lords. Subsequent amendments to the Parliament act in 1949 saw the Lords can only delay a bill for up to 1 year. The Salisbury Convention also means that no policy outlined in a party’s manifesto can directly be rejected by the Lords, and thus the democratic nature of the Commons is protected, and the primacy of the elected chamber remains integral and intact.
That being said, the House of Lords could be reformed to increase its effectiveness further; the removal of political parties would ensure that the central party system has little control over the outcome of the votes within the Lords. This reform would work to create a more cooperative and expertise based House of Lords, and less of a politicised unelected chamber. Secondly, the removal of the ability for the Prime Minister to advise the Queen on which members of society would be pertinent for appointments. This would reduce the nepotism and patronage that the Prime Minister can utilise for political gain, it also means that the appointment of peers isn’t entirely political in the Minister appointing those whom she or he knows would be sympathetic to the causes which they would pursue. Following on from this point, it’s necessary for the number of peers within the House of Lords to be capped; equal in number to the House of Commons could be a target to prevent the flooding of the House of Lords, in addition to the fact that the Upper Chamber can seat fewer than half of all Peers regardless. The size and cost of government would be reduced, whilst additionally not affecting the effectiveness of the revising chamber.
Currently, a proportion of the House of Lords is appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Established in the year 2000, this is an independent committee which seeks out to appoint people to the lords who are independently minded and who have the relevant expertise to work within the House of Lords. A reform to allow this body to advise all appointments to the Queen would be in the interests of democracy rather than to have the Prime Minister give advice the Queen on the majority of occasions. The strengthening of this body to allow those that are of great value to the nation, and with specialist knowledge, to become Peers is the way forward to best scrutinise parliament.
Lords existing for entirely religious reasons is contrary to the purpose of the Lords. The Lords, by its very existence, should exist as a revisionary body, scrutinising proposals which come from the House of Commons to safeguard the constitutional legitimacy and effectiveness of any bills which are set to be passed. The selection of a person “by God” does not a qualified Lord make and, in its current format, it should follow those Lords who profess to represent those of the religion should equally have a place within the Commons based on religious beliefs, or that these people need no representation in the Lords either. Thinking from an independent standpoint, it would seem ludicrous to have members of the House of Lords in existence solely to represent the views of atheists, so why is it at all necessary for there to be a subsection within the Lords to protect a certain religious grouping?
Finally, the House of Lords Reform Act of 2014 allowed members of the House of Lords to formally resign or retire, something which previously was constitutionally impossible. Following on from this innovation, the setting of a retirement age for Lords to ensure the quality of scrutiny and standards within the Lords would help make the House of Lords a more effective body within the British political system. Ultimately, the revisions outlined within this article are reforms which would strengthen the ability of the Lords to revise and scrutinise the Commons, as well as fortify the UK’s democracy.