Lola Rose’s blog: Is the House of Lords an outdated concept in our modern democracy?

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UK government / OGL 3 (UK government / OGL 3 (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3))

The House of Lords is currently one of the two chambers of the UK parliament. The House of Lords scrutinises, reviews and amends Bills from the House of Commons and can delay bills forcing the House of Commons to reconsider its decisions. The Lords also has two other useful functions: to hold Ministers to account and to investigate and debate longer-term public policy challenges facing the country. Some of its members are hereditary peers, the remainder have been appointed by successive governments, unlike the House of Commons where all members are elected by popular vote. Currently, the House of Lords has around 785 members, of which 90 are hereditary and 26 are Bishops. The number of peers is rising each year and as the House sits around 400 this means only half of these Lords can attend a debate at one time which raises the point of how useful or needed can their role in a second chamber actually be. Since the beginning of the 20th century, pressure has mounted to diminish or eradicate the role of hereditary peers or even to establish an entirely different, wholly elected second chamber. Such a system, where hereditary peers have such powers, is widely held to be undemocratic and anachronistic in a contemporary governmental system. This system also makes the UK out of step with other contemporary democratic governmental systems around Europe and the rest of the world which in turn lowers the UK government’s democracy rating. For example, in France, under the current constitution of the 6th Republic, the lower house (the National Assembly) is directly elected, while the upper house (the Senate, equivalent to our House of Lords) is also elected, albeit indirectly by elected officials and represents territorial collectives of the Republic and French citizens living abroad.

Many comprehensive and radical schemes have been proposed over the past century for Lords reform. None of these have come to fruition, but more limited changes have had a significant impact on the composition, powers and functions of the second chamber. For example, the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 limited the powers of the House of Lords in relation to public bills and the Parliament Acts of 1958 and 1963 introduced life peerage. Although no such major pieces of legislation have been more recently enacted, pressure for Lords reform has been building in recent years, not least because of a growing number of peers in cabinet office. Under David Cameron’s leadership from 2010 there were 24 peers in the cabinet, but in June 2017, in Theresa May’s administration 25 out of the total 118 ministers in government were in the House of Lords. Consequently, on the 15th of May 2018 the British government was forced to respond to a demand on Petition Parliament that stated “Give the electorate a referendum on the abolition of the House of Lords” when the number of signatures reached 100,000 (it would eventually reach 170,982). The government’s bland response was that “Reform of the House of Lords is not a priority for this parliament”, but clearly Lords reform remains a live issue in society today.

One reason to support a reformed House of Lords is that the current House is undemocratic because of the hereditary element and because of the appointed (as opposed to elected) nature of its members. In an email to me of the 15th of January 2019 in response to my enquiry as to his opinion regarding reform of the House of Lords, Patrick Grady (MP for Glasgow North) declared that he does not agree with the current composition of the House of Lords because, in a 21st-century democracy, legislators that are not voted for by the public should not be framing legislation. An email to me of the same nature on the 20th of January 2019, a member of the House of Lords, Lord Newby, agreed that in a democracy all legislators should be elected and that the current system should not be allowed to continue. This shows that members of both Houses agree that the House of Lords needs to be reformed. For them this is clearly a moral issue. They are agreed that political power should neither be wielded as a consequence of inheritance nor be enjoyed as a consequence of party-political appointment which strengthens the argument for why the UKs second chamber needs to be reformed immediately.

Another reason to support a reformed House of Lords is that a more democratic and elected chamber would put the UK in line with other successful democracies in Europe and around the world and thereby enhance the country’s reputation. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which calibrates a democracy rating of 1–10 on the basis of 60 indicators, in 2017 the UK (with a democracy rating of 8.53), was less democratic than the Nordic countries of Norway (9.87), Sweden (9.39), Denmark (9.22) and Finland (9.03).  As the Economist Democracy Index gives a high weighting to the electoral process and pluralism of the surveyed states, this shows that a House of Lords that is elected would improve the UK’s rating as a democracy. This links to a study by the University of Zurich and Berlin’s Social Science Research Centre found that Denmark, Finland and Belgium have the best functioning democracies in the world, whilst the UK ranks only 26th. As this index includes factors relating to the part played in governance by second chambers, this shows that the current arrangement (with an unelected second chamber) in the UK has a negative impact upon its standing in the world in terms of its level of democracy. This can only be improved if the House of Lords were to be an elected chamber as this factor is crucial in developing the UKs democracy rate.

A further reason to support a reformed House of Lords is the problem of its ever-expanding membership. As it stands ,it can be seen that if all the current lords (currently well in excess of 800) attempted to attend a debate, less than half could fit in the chamber, which seats only around 400. This is a consequence of the rising number of peers created by successive governments, particularly in recent years. Under Gordon Brown leadership, who was prime minister from 2007–2010, 34 peers were appointed (an average of 11.3 each year); under David Cameron, prime minister from 2010–2016, 245 peers were appointed (an average of 40.8 each year). If this trend continues, there will be well in excess of a thousand peers before long. This would mean that only 40% (i.e., less than half) of peers would be able to attend a debate which is clearly not democratic in any shape of form, in that even peers newly nominated by the government are unable to express their opinions! This might lead one to suspect that governments are not actually interested in their nominees’ contributions to debates but only in their votes. Of course, it could be argued against this that the Lords simply require a larger chamber in which to sit. That, though, would not solve the problem of the seemingly inexorable growth of the number of peers and so should not be taken into consideration as this encourages politicians to appoint more peers increasing the problem.

A related point is the sometimes deplorable and sometimes venal record of attendance of members of the House of Lords. in recent sessions of the House, from that of 2010–2012 to that of 2016–2017, the attendance record remained steady, ranging between 475 and 497 (although, of course, the total number of peers increased significantly in that period). This however means that a large proportion of the membership (almost a third) were not in attendance. Moreover, it may be possible to dismiss a significant proportion of those attendances as financially motivated more than anything else. 115 members of the Lords never spoke in any debates of 2016–17, yet they claimed in excess of one million three hundred thousand pounds in attendance fees. This demonstrates how corrupt the system truly is. Taxpayers’ money is being expended on subsidising those who are already privileged and who are not even doing the job for which they have been selected. If the peer’s size was cut down many Lords would take their title more seriously and not only use it for financial gain.

A final reason in favour of Lords reform is that major parties refuse to participate in the system as it stands. A prime example of this is the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which currently has 35 members of parliament but no representatives in the House of Lords. The current Member of Parliament for Glasgow North, Patrick Grady, wrote to me in the same email mentioned above that the SNP refuses to participate in the House of Lords and demands for it to be abolished. Adding to this Lord Newby wrote to me about how the current system means that London and the South East are very over represented, whilst regretting that the absence of the SNP from the Lords means that all debates on Scotland are very one-sided. This shows that refusal of the SNP to participate in the current system is important, as it means that even in this undemocratic chamber a significant part of the UK’s population and one of its key constituents, Scotland, is not represented at all. That said, non-participation in the Lords is those parties’ own choice: they could participate and attempt reform from within. But a large parties refusal to participate in the Lords shows that there is a fundamental problem within it and also encourages the public to have a negative stance on it which shows that the SNPs refusal is a major reason why the House of Lords should be reformed.

The main reason I reject total abolition of the House of Lords is that a second chamber can perform many useful functions in a parliamentary system. It can, for example, be used to scrutinise and question legislation and hold the government to account. Lord Newby, in the same email previously mentioned notes that a second chamber can be valuable in granting time for arguments to be developed, investigating long-term  issues (through its committees, for example), thereby improving legislation. This links to the assertion of Dr James Rogers, a political scientist working at Texas A&M University, that bi-cameral legislatures generally find better means to legislate for any given end than do unicameral systems and thereby produce better legislation. This shows that both academic opinion and the views of members of the house are in accord regarding the utility of a second chamber. Both would agree that the abolition of the House of Lords would not be the best option. However, 96% of readers of the Express newspaper in 2018 voted for abolition of House of Lords which shows many are in favour of this option instead of reform. Overall, abolition is much more unlikely than reformation as a second chamber is needed in scrutinising the UK governments work and is a system many countries use to keep governmental systems more democratic.

The main reason I reject keeping the lords as it stands is that there is an overwhelming case against it. It is undemocratic and open to corruption and political manipulation by the appointment of peers. In a recent poll carried out by Survation fully 76% of respondents said that they would prefer the House of Lords to move to a new system (with fixed-term, elected members) and just 11% favoured the current system of appointed and hereditary members. This therefore shows that the public have very little faith in and support for the current House of Lords as a second chamber and clearly do not desire that it should remain as it is and so this option can be ruled out. Although, some may claim an elected House of Lords would mean the Lords would never have the courage to go against public opinion and this may deprive society from having a very valuable judgement from peers. But this is simply not the case as public opinion shapes how governments work effectively in meeting the needs of the people and so this is not an effective argument to be considered.

From the evidence I have presented it might be argued that the majority of the unelected taxpayer funded men and woman in the chambers do little to no work at all. I am not disregarding the few peers who notably dedicate their lives to their work as lords but there appears to be a drastic need for change. For example, in 2019 in the Guardian’s Podcast, ‘Are peers asleep on the job? Investigating the House of Lords’ it was pointed out that Lord Paul, a member of the House of Lords for many years, was not on any committee and had only spoken once on an issue in the previous year but had claimed over £40,000 in attendance and travel expenses. When asked by the Guardian “what do you do if you are not a part of the debates?” Lord Paul responded by saying that there were lots of other things that members of the house can do that don’t involve taking part in debates like thinking. This response is laughable and shows that peers are not necessarily involved in debates regarding many important issues.

Far too many lords appear to hold the title as a sort of personal reward rather than actually earning it from the work they have accomplished. Many find the debating aspect of their role so dull that they fall asleep! There have been countless photos and videos spread over the internet as evidence of this but they are disregarded and those peers identified not held accountable by the house because they are senior citizens. Adding to this, in July, 2019 reports found staff had been harassed and bullied by peers. The complaints documented inappropriate touching and haranguing behaviour yet no action seemed to be taken. Naomi Ellenbogen from the Queens Counsel stated “On the whole, staff who have experienced bullying and harassment have tended not to complain, formally or otherwise, in the belief that nothing will happen and/or for fear of reprisal”. So I ask once again, why is reform not being considered as a matter of urgency when the need for change is so clear?

This report has demonstrated that in its current form the House of Lords is an outdated institution. The option for it to remain as it is clearly not viable and would be hugely unpopular: it is undemocratic, liable to corruption and political manipulation and is too large (and growing ever larger). In fact, it is the world’s second largest legislative body behind China’s people’s congress. The House of Commons former speaker, John Bercow, has also stated having an unelected second chamber which is significantly larger than Commons is absurd and thinks its membership should be halved in size. The option to abolish it completely is not to be recommended as a second chamber performs many useful functions: it offers an opportunity to make legislation better. From my research it is clear a great deal of individuals,  among both the public and politicians, believe the House of Lords should not continue in its current state and the topic is very much back on the agenda. Various options have been mooted including moving to York. And, of course, reforming the House of Lords in order that the second chamber can be made more democratic and responsible.  A reformed second chamber would give the opportunity for it to be elected by systems that could guarantee a more proportional representation of the electorate and/or one that guarantees a greater voice for the regions and constituent members of the UK and so reform should be considered by government officials as a matter of urgency. 

Lola Rose, September, 2020

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