The House of Lords debate conjures many emotional and cognitive responses. Some feel it is part of our heritage and thus should remain, whereas some feel it is a position of privilege for the “boys’ club” mentality of our governments.
It doesn’t matter which government you serve in, which political bent you lean towards, simply fulfil enough time as a Parliamentarian and you’re pretty much guaranteed a seat in the House of Lords. This is where you then oppose the government of the day on issues your own party has lost in Parliament. It’s like a back-up voting system.
For or Against
So what are the arguments for and against the House of Lords? How do we make our minds up about whether it should stay or be replaced with a system better for the people?
What are the factors that influence the House of Lords, a person’s inclusion into the establishment, or exclusion? What are we not seeing that is equally important? What is fair or not fair about the principle of the HoL? Is ‘fair’ the right word? David Cameron once said that he wanted to “rebuild a more traditional relationship with the Lords, dial down the confrontations and work more constructively together“.
The Brexit debate has put the House of Lords back in the public spotlight. So what is it and does it have a place in a modern democracy?
Who sits in the House of Lords?
The chamber currently has 689 eligible life peers, appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister. It also has 90 hereditary peers and 26 bishops. The last piece of legislation on reform of the House of Lords was the 1999 House of Lords Act which removed the majority of hereditary peers, leaving life peers in the majority. This was supposed to be the beginning of a process that removed all hereditary peers but, despite much debate in Parliament, no further reform Acts have been passed.
The Conservatives have the highest number of peers (252), although no majority, followed by Labour (202) and the Lib Dems (102) and a handful from minor parties, as well as 178 crossbenchers who are not affiliated with any party. High-profile appointments in the past few years have included Alan Sugar, star of The Apprentice, and Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.
Members meet in Westminster and are expected to scrutinise bills approved by the House of Commons. While they cannot normally prevent laws from being passed, they can delay bills and add on amendments that are then sent back for consideration in the House of Commons.
How much are peers paid?
Peers are not paid a salary but can claim a daily allowance of £150 or £300 if they attend a sitting.
The fresh scrutiny brought about by Brexit has also resurrected interest in the peers’ allowance. One notorious anecdote reported this week tells of a peer who “left the taxi running” outside the chamber while he dashed in to claim his £300, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Between February 2014 to January 2015, £21Million was spent on Lords allowances and expenses, with the average Peer receiving £25,826. – See more here.
Lady D’Souza, who recently stepped down as speaker of the upper chamber, told the BBC’s new documentary Meet the Lords that many of her colleagues did nothing to justify their stipend.
“There is a core of peers who work incredibly hard, who do that work, and there are, sad to say, many, many, many peers who contribute absolutely nothing but who claim the full allowance.”
What’s wrong with the current system?
With more than 800 peers, the House of Lords is the world’s second largest decision-making body after China’s National People’s Congress. Campaigners such as the Electoral Reform Society argue that it is undemocratic that unelected peers should have such sway in British politics.
A recent ICM poll for the pro-Brexit group Change Britain found that “43 per cent of respondents would be more likely to back abolition or reform of the second chamber” if the House of Lords attempts to obstruct Brexit, reports The Scotsman, “compared to 12 per cent who are less likely”.
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has also argued that the House of Lords as it stands “fails to represent large parts of the UK”. For example, the north-west of England has nearly the same population as London but the capital has five times more members in the House of Lords.
What’s right about the House of Lords?
In 2014, the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne argued that the House of Lords continues to work remarkably well, throwing out what he calls “populist measures introduced by governments determined to bolster their right-wing credentials”.
An elected House of Lords would never have the will or the courage to stand out against public opinion, he argues, and would deprive the public of the judgement of “very valuable” peers, such as retired generals, trade union leaders, academics and judges.
“These are people with immense expertise, an important counterbalance to the Commons,” he says.
What are the alternatives?
All the main parties have pledged to cut the number of peers, and many politicians agree that hereditary peers should be phased out.
Ed Miliband has proposed a wholly elected senate, with roughly proportionate numbers from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions, instead of MP-style constituencies.
Three years ago, the Lib Dems put forward a proposal to halve the total number of members and ensure that at least 80 per cent of peers were elected, but the plans were abandoned after an agreement with Tory opponents failed to be reached.
Alternative Ideas: Fully appointed
A fully appointed House would remove the remainder of the hereditary peers leaving just Members of the Lords appointed by a body like the current House of Lords Appointments Commission which appoints the non-party political Crossbench Members of the House.
- It will help maintain the current broad range of membership of the House of Lords rather than creating more professional politicians. Would Lord Sugar (Alan Sugar) or Baroness Grey-Thompson (Tanni Grey-Thompson) stand for election?
- It doesn’t threaten the democratic supremacy of the House of Commons.
- Appointment is more cost effective than election.
- It is undemocratic to have unelected Members of the Lords involved in drafting and passing legislation.
- The UK is the only country in the world – with the exception of Canada, that has an unelected second chamber.
- A more democratic system is worth investing in.
Every Member of the Lords would have to win their place in the House of Lords through an election.
- It fully addresses the current democratic deficit, giving the House of Lords a full mandate to initiate and amend legislation.
- More people will be given the opportunity to stand for Parliament giving a greater range of representation.
- More young people will sit in the House of Lords.
- It causes more problems than it solves: with two elected chambers, the House of Commons would no longer be supreme.
- The chamber would be full of professional politicians rather than attracting individuals with a wealth of knowledge and experience in a vast range of fields.
- It isn’t clear how often elections should be and additional elections would cause additional costs.
A mixture of elected and appointed Members of the Lords, potentially through a 70% – 30% split)
- It combines the best of both fully appointed and fully elected systems: addressing the democratic deficit while retaining individuals with expertise and experience in valuable fields.
- The House of Commons would retain its democratic supremacy.
- It would be a more straightforward system to introduce.
- It is undemocratic to retain any unelected Members of the Lords.
- It will create a two-tier House of Lords of elected and non-elected Members causing friction.
- The system would cause additional confusion both within and without Parliament as to where power does and should lie.
Parliament would cease to have a second chamber.
- New Zealand, Denmark and other countries function without a second chamber, so can we.
- We would save money by having only one chamber.
- Scrutiny could be carried out in different ways such as through a strengthened committee system.
- The standard of scrutiny of legislation would drop in a unicameral system.
- The House of Commons would have too much power without a revising second chamber.
- The bicameral system is ingrained in British political culture and has historically worked well.
To help you make up your mind, here is a PDF document on the facts of the House of Lords.
And here are a number of articles in one PDF that make interesting reading.
Finally, an unequivocal view from The Badger. As we are non-partisan, we would prefer not to have a House of Lords at all, as this an affront to democracy, and only China has a bigger unelected body making policy issues in their country. We would favour an elected House that candidates have to fight for in order to maintain their positions, but then it becomes an extension of Parliament and ultimately futile. We see the issues of the American system where President Trump is unable to garner support for his election promise to abolish “ObamaCare”, even though his party has the majority in both houses, so what makes us think having a second house in the UK is even useful?
What are your thoughts? Get in touch today!