I was relieved to read Nick Clegg’s comments last week about House of Lords reform. Speaking to The Times:
‘..Mr Clegg… said that he would be “completely pragmatic” about his party’s ambition for a fully elected House of Lords. “This Government is not going to be yet another government which talks about House of Lords reform and then fails.” ‘
He is right that the question of House of Lords reform is one almost as old as the fabric of the building. There is a reason for that: by and large, it works well and it is difficult to see how many of its touted successors might better perform what has become its principle role over the past century: that of revising legislation and holding the government to account through the use of a breadth of experience unparalleled in any other legislature.
Before considering reform of one part of a legislature, it is surely essential first to consider each House’s respective roles. In federal countries the second chamber often represents the states and the lower House the people. Thus, each of the United States elect two Senators regardless of size. Were reform being suggested as a means of reflecting the increased devolution of the United Kingdom, it would be worth considering – perhaps through indirect elections from the Parliaments and Assemblies of the nations and the counties of England or, were elections to be direct, according each of the nations equal representation. Either of these reforms pose immediate problems – of over-representation of both smaller nations and of political parties relative to their national strength – but they at least respond to an understanding of what a second Chamber is for.
Although the Lords’ origins are not as a revising Chamber of experts, that is how it has developed over the past 100 years, but especially since the Life Peerages Act 1955. Before we consider reform – or at least the extent of any reform – let us look at what we would lose. Retired generals debating decisions to go to war, retired governors of the Bank of England opining about finance reform, eminent scientists debating issues such as embryology with theologian bishops, retired Law Lords elucidating the consequences of law reform that, in so many cases, have not been appreciated by the Lower House. Notwithstanding their collective experience, all these debates take place within a House aware that, whilst it does not have the legitimacy to disregard a government’s manifesto commitments, it has a duty to pose questions that elude MPs more prone to look to short term electoral advantage.
It is suggested that current members of the House might stand for election. If this is true for some, few wish to do so and they are, in turn, unlikely to be the most valuable members of the House. In any event, such a suggestion misses the point. The House of Lords brings such breadth of experience and independence precisely because its members need think about nothing more than the long term national interest when debating legislation and holding the government to account. It allows Parliament to step back, to reflect, to take account of the considered and the historical view without compromising the ultimate supremacy of the representatives of the people.
So, before we dispense with the wisdom of two generations of some of our finest minds and the most experienced contributors to our public life, let us step back and consider how much poorer will be our legislation and how impoverished our public discourse without them.