Wednesday 12 January 2011

The Guiding Principle of Lords Reform: better government

The House of Lords receives a bad press. Although more representative of modern society than the House of Commons and approximately two-thirds cheaper, the House of Lords continues to be portrayed as a private gentlemen’s club, occupied by privileged old men and political hacks from a by-gone era. The perpetuation of such hackneyed stereotypes lies behind many of the calls for Lords reform and obscures a plain reality: the House of Lords works extremely effectively and the institution in most urgent need of reform is the House of Commons.

Following the removal of all but 92 of the hereditary peers in 1999, the House of Lords has become noticeably more confident. With an increased sense of legitimacy, the Lords has defeated government legislation more than 500 times since 1999 and has become more insistent upon legislative amendment, which is good for democracy and for the quality of legislation. This rise is also due to the fact that no party enjoys a majority in the upper chamber, with the Conservatives and Labour broadly equal and the Liberal Democrats and cross-benchers holding the balance of power. The lack of a single party majority in the House of Lords is a positive development which strengthens Parliament (this is not an issue of the House of Lords versus the House of Commons, it is Parliament versus the Executive) and must be replicated in any reformed second chamber. Around the world, second chambers that have the same majority as first chambers are prone to government influence and are less effective.

Many of the post-1997 constitutional reform initiatives were criticised for the failure to consider their legal and political implications.  Similarly, advocates of an elected House of Lords have routinely failed to consider the profound impact the introduction of the elective principle will have on the operation of Parliament as a whole.  It is imperative that those in favour of reform properly understand the fundamentally important complementary relationship that exists between Commons and Lords.

This is not to argue against any reform. On the contrary, the steady increase in the power of the Executive at the expense of the House of Commons, the adoption of the Human Rights Act and the more general constitutional evolution that has taken place since 1997 are all arguments in favour of Lords reform. The House of Lords is also unmanageably large. With the addition of 111 new peers in the six months following the last general election (compared with 205 during the entirety of the Thatcher government), the number of peers entitled to sit in the second chamber has swelled to 792; this makes the upper house by far the largest of any democracy and, after China’s upper house, the second largest in the world.  Given the size of the British population the continued growth of the House of Lords is unsustainable and, in light of plans to reduce the size of the House of Commons, unjustifiable. A cap on total membership of the House of Lords needs to be set with appointments of further peers suspended until mechanisms for retirement and resignation are in place.

Reform is welcome on the condition that it correctly identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the upper chamber, preserving and improving the former and correcting the latter. One of the reasons Lords reform has failed thus far has been the inability of reformers to effectively demonstrate precisely how the introduction of an elected element will improve the performance of the upper house.  Any reform needs to make the quest for better government its guiding doctrine. 

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