Is the House broke? Does it need fixing?

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.



  1. Michael Ranson said,

    24 May, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Just so we can be clear about your battle lines, what about the hereditary peers? Are you mounting a defence of them in 2010?

    • francishoar said,

      24 May, 2010 at 2:21 pm

      I would be happiest for the current small proportion of elected hereditary peers to stay, perhaps a reduced number were the House to be limited in number (as I think it should be). However, I recognise that we may have to be realistic about what is possible to defend, which is why I have pitched this blog in this way.
      I meant it to be properly ‘bloggy’ so I haven’t proposed what might be acceptable as a compromise. However, a 50 % appointed 50 % elected House might be worth considering, were the elected peers (senators?) to represent the nations (whether directly or indirectly elected).

  2. Jon Rollason said,

    24 May, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    We have a second chamber which was intended to be the forum for the people who actually owned the country to exert massive influence on its government without going through the tedious business of getting elected by anyone. That was fine by almost everyone for a long time, although opposition to the idea was fairly widespread by the early nineteenth century.

    As a result of the patent illegitimacy of the situation in an age when even women and poor people were being allowed to vote for representation in law-making and revenue raising, the upper house was first largely neutered, then its composition was changed. Rather than containing people who did at least have a stake in the country’s government by virtue of belonging to the class with most to lose from socialist anarchy, it now contained people who were simply nominated; some for being quite clever, some for making massive donations to political parties, some because their political careers had sputtered out, some for no obvious reason, some so that they could be brought into governments without the bother of being elected.

    Bizarrely, a rump consisting of the descendants of successful eleventh century warlords and a few bishops was left in there, on the basis that any consistent and well-thought-out change would be look like ideology, and might deprive the world’s finest legislature of some of its most brilliant minds.

    By happy coincidence, this arrangement is simply the best one that could possibly be envisaged. This is actually the litmus test of “conservative with a small c” – the willingness to defend – on the basis of pure wilful optimism about its virtue – a situation which has arisen by hapless hazard as the moral basis and legitimacy of the original system on which it has accreted collapsed completely.

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