Principles or practicalities? Salvaging House of Lords reform: after yet another failed attempt, what could be done now to reform the House of Lords?

AuthorBarber, Stephen

When Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg conceded that his cherished House of Lords Reform Bill had been crushed at the hands of his Conservative coalition partners (and the Labour opposition) in 2012, it seemed that attempts to reform the upper house had been defeated for another decade. But out of the wreckage there have been attempts from within Parliament itself to forge consensus over limited modernisation. While far short of proponents' ambitions to legitimise the chamber democratically, it must be recognised that piecemeal reform has meant that the character and composition of the Lords has altered considerably, even in recent decades. And modest, consensus-driven change could alter its nature once again.

This article is based on the author's evidence before the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, which launched an inquiry into smaller-scale change that might achieve political consensus. What follows argues that even if proposals for reform are practically focused, the principle of democratic legitimacy must feature in any reform process. It discusses the ideas placed in the public domain by the inquiry and makes the case that modest democratic reform could achieve broad consensus even at this stage.

Lords reform and proposed reform, 1911-2012

For more than a century there have been attempts to reform the House of Lords and since 1911 a number of relatively significant changes have been implemented, including the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts, Life Peerages Act (1958), Peerages Act (1963), and House of Lords Act (1999). These reforms changed both the powers of the Lords and its composition. As such the chamber has moved gradually from one comprised exclusively of male and hereditary peers, to one almost wholly appointed, 22 per cent of whom are women (roughly the same proportion of women as is found in the Commons) (Leys, 2012). The Lords, a revising chamber, cannot veto finance bills and can only delay for a maximum of two sessions. Thus over the period of piecemeal reform, the primacy of the House of Commons has been established and reinforced.

Since the 1999 Act which removed all but 92 hereditary peers (though others were converted into life peerages), there have been numerous consultations, discussions and white papers aimed at serious Lords reform, which have all dissipated under scrutiny, in the face of political opposition or amid an inability to agree on a formula (Dorey, 2008). Namely, these are the Wakeham Report (2000), The House of Lords --Completing the Reform (2000); Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform First Report (2002), Constitutional Reform: Next Steps for the House of Lords (2003), and The House of Lords: Reform (2007). The most recent proposals to democratise the upper chamber with direct elections, this time in the guise of the House of Lords Reform Bill (2012), have once again been abandoned. Consequently, were there to be change initiated in the 2010 Parliament or even in the next, it is likely to be both modest and in the (long) tradition of piecemeal adjustment (Bogdanor, 2005).

Proponents of small-scale change have long existed and include the academic and Conservative peer Lord Norton whose 'Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber' has represented a defence of an appointed Lords but one where a statutory appointments commission creates members on merit. Elsewhere, Lord Steel has proposed a four step process of reform in a Private Members Bill to include the statutory appointments commission, abolition of hereditary peer by-elections, removal of non-attendees and encouragement of retirement.

Amid the wreckage of the 2012 bill, it is here that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee's inquiry took up the challenge, proposing that 'smaller-scale changes to the membership and structure of the House of Lords would be likely to command a consensus' (House of Commons, 2012). The core areas of the inquiry were to consider the following:

  1. Mechanisms for reducing the size of the House of Lords, including:

    * no longer replacing hereditary peers in the House of Lords when they die;

    * measures to remove persistent non-attendees;

    * a moratorium on new peers;

    * fixed-term appointments for new peers;

    * a retirement age for peers;

    * expelling peers who have been convicted of a serious offence.

  2. The desirability of a Statutory Appointments Commission.

  3. The scope for establishing a consensus about the principles which should determine the relative numerical strengths of the different party groups in the House of Lords, and for codifying such principles.

    This article will discuss points 1 and 2 in brief response form, reflecting evidence presented by the author to the Select Committee, and considering not only the merits of a tidying up exercise, but also the importance of limiting prime ministerial patronage. Incongruously, some of the proposals to make minor adjustments potentially erode legitimacy further by placing greater influence in the hands of the Prime Minister, party leaders and the party machines. The article will then remake the case for democratic legitimacy and critique the idea of new appointments to the Lords reflecting votes cast for political parties at the general election. It will go on to argue that there is a need for reform proposals to go a little further and to introduce a modest element of democracy, which it is believed could command consensus when taken in the round.

    Tidying up the House

    This section offers brief responses to the potential options set out by the inquiry; subsequent sections deal with the more substantive analysis at the core of this article. One...

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