A Chamber that Works

Standpoint‘s Mole in the House of Lords says the institution is both effective and efficient

Constitutional Affairs The Mole UK Politics Westminster

The House of Lords has been badly bruised. Peers are angry to see themselves depicted as ermine-gowned, coroneted money-grubbers with their snouts in the trough. We don’t know whether it is the gullibility, the stupidity or the greed of the four peers who were stung that is most contemptible, but we do know it is unfair because the image has stuck. At the end of the week of shame in January there was a debate on climate change instigated by Lord Browne, the former chairman of BP. Speeches were made by Lords Rees OM, President of the Royal Society and former Astronomer Royal, and Lord May OM, former President of the Royal Society and former Scientific Adviser to the Government, which should have gone some way to redeem the Lords’ reputation; but no one noticed.

Our anger is deep-seated because, since the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers (only 92 remain), the House had carefully built up a reputation for independence and it had won a good deal of the public’s respect. Without the taunts about “backwoodsmen”, the House has challenged many measures coming from the House of Commons, which is firmly under the control of the Government’s whips. We have defeated the present Government 489 times, whereas in ten years under Tony Blair the Commons defeated the Government just twice. It was the Lords who stood up to defend some of our ancient liberties, notably by resisting the pressure to extend detention without trial to 42 days. We opposed plans to outlaw incitement to religious hatred, forcing the Government to amend them. For the first time in a century we have had effective bicameral government. When Jack Straw speaks of reforming the House of Lords, he means that the Lords is going to be put back into its box.

Ultimately in the legislative process the House of Commons will prevail, but only after we have started a public debate and as a result won concessions from a resentful and bullying Government, something the House of Commons has failed to do. “A little touch of gridlock in the night” is no bad thing.

The other change is that we have become the major amending chamber. This is another of Blair’s unintended consequences: by running down the Commons; by using the guillotine on all Bills; by getting the Whips to secure rubber-stamped majorities, the government sends Bills to the Lords with scores of pages that have never been debated. We examine each line of each clause on each page: that is why in 2007 a total of 5,559 amendments were tabled in the Lords and 1,911 passed. It is not surprising that lobbyists have realised that the best place to secure change is in the Lords. We have just spent 12 days debating the Banking Bill. The new City minister, Lord Myners, one of the authors of the Bill, understood it better than any minister in the Commons, including the Chancellor.

What now? You cannot run the House of Lords like a gentleman’s club when there is a shortage of gentlemen. The Lords must have a power to suspend or expel those members who offend against the code of conduct, the terms of which are being looked at by the Privileges Committee. Consultancy fees paid to peers to represent a particular interest in the House should not be allowed, and why should someone who doesn’t pay taxes in our country be a member of its legislature? Such changes, while necessary, are fairly modest compared to a more fundamental reform, but there is little chance of this in the coming years. Each party is divided over reform and the Government is now too tired, too battered and too time-restricted to take it on. As Prime Minister, David Cameron will not want to get enmeshed in a constitutional wrangle. However, the fall-out of the recent scandal could lead to some useful incremental changes: disciplinary procedures for errant peers; expulsion of peers convicted of certain crimes; a statutory body set up to appoint the crossbench peers; and an informal agreement as to the proportion of non-political appointments compared to political ones. David Steel has reintroduced his Bill into the Lords, which would achieve much of this.

The House of Lords is a precious part of the British constitution: the bulwark against the overweening power of a party-dominated government. It provides a balance and an opportunity to reflect and reconsider. Its membership is quite unique: doctors, judges, soldiers, prison reformers, sailors, actors, economists, philosophers, novelists, publishers, farmers, historians, bishops, scientists, nurses, social workers, trade union leaders, businesspeople, TV presenters, ex-councillors, ex-MPs and ex-Cabinet Ministers, and there is a wider ethnic and gender mix than in the House of Commons. There is no other second chamber in the world that can draw upon such a range of experience. It was the Archbishop of York who on the floor of the House recently questioned the morality of the Government’s economic policy. In what other country could that happen?

Many peers are in receipt of some payment or pension. Gone are the days when companies liked a lord on the board: peers who are directors of a company are expected to contribute to the activity of the company-their role is implemental, not ornamental. If we moved to become a salaried House, as some would wish, we would soon become a community of professional politicians, just as the Commons has become. So we are stuck with a system of allowances and we are prepared to be quite open about them. All the details of payments made to peers over the last year were published in January, something the House of Commons has not yet done-indeed it even tried most shamefully to exempt such information from the Freedom of Information Act. While major reform is on the backburner, some of us do think it would be sensible and prudent to limit the size of the House of Lords. When most of the hereditary peers left, the number fell to 600. But it has now risen to 743, and about 12 never turn up. An Upper Chamber of 400 members would be quite adequate.

How can it be reduced? Some favour dropping the election of a new hereditary peer every time one dies, but it would take decades for their numbers to fall significantly. The number of life peers is growing: in less than two years, Gordon Brown alone has appointed eight new life peers as ministers. Injecting specialist experience is useful and any prime minister would want to retain this power. It is the steady flow of new crossbench life peers from the Stevenson Committee that ensures that the number of new members exceeds the number who die each year.

One way to limit the number of life peers would be to appoint them only for 15 years and to offer all existing life peers either a further 15 years or compensation to withdraw. That would reduce the size of the House significantly, but still retain its unique character.