Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The House of Lords: myth buster

So, constitutional reform is on the agenda in the form of proposed reform to the House of Lords. Lords reform has been a long and drawn out process, starting in 1911 with the Parliament Act which stopped the Lords from vetoing any money bills, continuing with the 1949 Parliament Act which increased the Common's dominance over the Lords by reducing the Lords power to delay legislation further by allowing a time limit of one year on Lord's delay of legislation. A further programme of rather piecemeal Lords reform was initiated by the Blair Governments, seeking to remove the hereditary principle for membership and dramatically reducing the numbers of Lords, again enhancing the supremacy of the Commons.  There are currently 92 hereditary peers remaining.

Since 1999, however, the Lords has remained largely unchanged despite being discussed numerous times in the Commons and suggestions of reform from all three major parties. At present, there are 775 members of the Lords, over 100 more than the Commons, these members are made up of Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual, of the latter there are 26. 

This is meant to be a fairly short blog seeking to counteract many of the false or inaccurate claims made both in the media and by politicians in recent days rather than a call to arms for full out and immediate reform.

1. The Lords provides expertise and therefore should remain in its current form

It is true to state that, like in the Commons, members has expertise in certain areas and therefore should remain in order to utilise this in the legislative process. There are of course, widely known and active members of the Lords who do have expertise in some areas, Lord Walton, a neurologist, Lord Norton, a constitutional expert and Lord Winston, a famous expert on genetics all do enhance this reputation. However, it is estimated that only 10% of Lords are actually there as a result of their expertise in comparison to 40% who are former politicians. This for me, is not a convincing enough figure to use expertise as an argument for keeping the Lords. Expertise could instead be brought in through the already widespread committee system. The fact that Lords can also be employed by the Government as paid advisers also raises questions about bias and a lack of transparency amongst Lords.

2. The Second Chamber should not be elected through a proportional system as voters have rejected this through the AV referendum

False, completely and utterly false, yes, the system of AV was rejected but voters have never had the chance to vote on a proportional system as AV isn't one, it's majoritarian. It is also interested to note that polling by Unlock Democracy of 3671 correspondents showed that 86.33% preferred the Single Transferable Vote system.

3. But people aren't interested in Lords Reform?

One of the main claims used by opponents of Lords reform in recent days has been that people just simply don't care. This could be true and people may not have strong opinions on Lords Reform per se, however, and I know from experience as working as a constituency caseworker in an MP's office, ask the average person on the street whether they are happy with the way politics operates in the UK and I can place a pretty good bet on what they would say. Judging from casework I received, it appears people are disillusioned and unhappy with our political institutions and often feel politicians are out of touch, unrepresentative and distant. The House of Lords is, in my opinion, the epitome of these concerns. Claims the Lords adds diversity to parliament are weakened by the fact that there are more members of the Lords over 90 than under 40 and that only 22% are female. Yes, the Lords may add some variation in terms of background and former careers, however, from a microcosmic point of view, the Lords are even further away from representing society than the Commons. It is also interesting to note that from one website alone, 3000 people have written to their MP about Lords reform.

4. This isn't the right time to introduce constitutional reform

This just simply doesn't hold up and assumes the Government can only focus on one thing at once, something I hope is not the case, take the 1944 Education Act, one of the biggest reforms to education in all of the 20th century, this Act was introduced in the midst of the Second World War and completely overhauled the secondary school system in the UK. Attention  is not being taken away from economic affairs but our constitution should always be considered a priority as it directly affects the outward workings of parliament and how it relates to the electorate and is a clear means to an end.

5.  But surely the Lords is traditional and therefore should stay?

I'm not even going to dignify this response with an answer, tradition is no argument for anything. 

Overall, I think these reforms are long overdue and highly necessary if we are to restore trust and legitimacy to our second chamber. The fact that proposals for Lords reform were in all three party's manifestos, the coalition agreement and have been the subject of debate for a number of years it is high time this is finally put into practice.

1 comment:

  1. I'm surprised you didn't attempt to debunk the watertight claim that a reformed House of Lords would undermine the primacy of the House of Commons.