Meg Russell and Meghan Benton last year (1) surveyed the Lords on behalf of the House of Lords Appointments Commission to analyse the breadth and depth of experience in the Lords. The single largest group (about 100-150) was that of former MPs, with the legal professions also well represented. There are also a large proportion of peers with business and finance backgrounds, as well as backgrounds as academics, foreign affairs, and some trade unionists. There’s a fair few defence specialists, civil servants and Armed Forces servicemen. Areas less well represented include architecture and engineering, transport, non-higher education, the leisure industry, science and local authority administration, and very few peers with manual trades backgrounds. There is a lack of peers who are surveyors, planners, environmentalists and schoolteachers. There are relatively few peers with experience in international organisations. There are other weaknesses in public health.
I’ll be the first to admit it: the Lords isn’t perfect. But it still doesn’t follow that because of these flaws election is the only answer to resolve them. Election will, I hope you’ll agree, turn the small body of former MPs in the very large body of wannabe MPs. Instead of assuming it’s an either/or matter, we should look for a way to improve the flawed, existing mechanism.
My proposals for reform follow largely Lord Steel of Aikwood’s Bill, which has been proposed in the Lords several times in the past few years, but apparently has not yet made it to the Commons.
The Bill proposes to place all appointements under the control of a Statutory Appointments Commission consisting of nine members nominated by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords. At least four members, including the chair, would be independent of any registered political party, and there would be a political balance among the other members.
Candidates for nomination to the Lords would be of three types:
- ‘Party nominees’ (by any party with more than 6 seats in the Commons), as long as the Commission considered the procedure and criteria the party used for nomination were satisfactory;
- ‘Prime Ministerial nominees’ (separate from his party); and
- ‘Non-party nominees’ (proposed by members of the public).
All nominees would be put on a ‘long-list’, and would have to ‘demonstrate conspicuous merit and a willingness and capacity to make a contribution to the work of the House of Lords’.
The Commission would be bound by a set a parameters which it would have to keep in mind when considering appointments. No less than a fifth (20%) of the House should be non-party (i.e. Crossbenchers), and no party or coalition of governing parties should have a majority, although the governing party should be entitled to a larger number than the official Opposition party. However, that majority should be no larger than 3% of the total membership of the House.
There would also be a cap on membership – so it is no larger than the Commons. Any member of the Lords on request, any peer could ask to go on a permanent leave of absence, which would in effect discount them from the House’s membership but allow them to retain their title. Additionally any peer who did not attend a single day of a parliamentary session would be assumed to have taken permanent leave of absence. Any member sent to prison for more than year would also be ejected from the House. Finally, the existing hereditary peers would not be renewed.
This Bill would allow us to retain the benefits of an appointed House while minimising as much as possible the flaws inherent in the present system which benefits the parties too much. Of course, right now the Bill is unlikely to become law, for precisely that reason. The parties would much rather enhance their control over the House of Lords by making it elected than actually improving the work of Parliament.
Eventually, I hope that this Bill, or another in a similar form, becomes law and stabilises the future of the House. However the dialogue in Westminster right now is dominated by pro-electors. In the country at large, the debate seems actually more intelligent and less gripped by ideology. Such encouraging examples are the Intelligence Squared debate held on November 23, 2010, in which a majority were persuaded by the pro-appointment side, and the debate in the Lords by English schools on December 10, 2010.
Let’s hope the tide is, slowly, turning, and that it’s not too late to preserve the Lords.
1) Meg Russell and Meghan Benton, Analysis of existing data on the breadth of expertise andexperience in the House of Lords: Report to the House of Lords Appointments Commission,Constitution Unit (March 2010), p 5.)
So, after seven chapters, I feel I’ve summarised the main issues which surround House of Lords reform. I will now summarise my argument.
First and foremost it is important to emphasise that much of the debate about the future of the Upper House is back-to-front. It should not be that the method of composition is decided and then expect it all to work out. Instead, we should first deduce what functions we want the Upper House to perform, vis a vis the Lower House; from this, the method of appointment will follow.
The Upper House must complement the strengths and weaknesses of the Commons. The elected Commons represents the political nation, and is therefore necessarily supreme; it must have the final say to preserve core accountability. The Upper House must enhance the work of the Lower House and provide a differing point of view. However, election clearly brings its own shortfalls which preclude its necessity in the Upper House.
If the Upper House is not sufficiently independent and does not offer a long-term view of issues, and comprises the same political animals as the Commons, then it is not capable of doing its job of being a revising and improving chamber. The very purpose of the Upper House is, after all, to provide ‘sober second thought’, and if it replicates the Commons it becomes superfluous.
There are methods of electing the Upper House which would allow it to have a different outlook from the Lower House, but the conditions to achieve this do not exist in the United Kingdom. The primary means is to have the Upper House represent subnational entities (such as federal States), as in the US or Australia; this will make it likely to be different in electoral representation and, hopefully, political outlook. While the UK has subnational entities, one of these (England) is so vast as to make any federal structure unstable. A federal Upper House in the UK would either be inherently unfair to England or end up replicating the Commons again. This also requires the existence of an English Parliament, which is very unlikely to happen. Therefore the UK’s Upper House cannot become a Chamber of the States.
Back to the problems of election. Election is not, despite assumptions, meritocratic at all – it is, essentially, a popularity contest. Being an MP requires a certain personality which lives and breathes politics. The present crop of MPs, while talented and undoubtedly extremely hard-working for their constituents and the country, are also concerned with the interests of their party. The Upper House must counteract this by having members who are outside (or at least, merely skirting) the political bubble and are skillful in a wide variety of areas.
Additionally, being an MP is not only a calling – it’s a living. This is necessary, really – not paying them leaves Parliament available only to those who are independently wealthy. However, this causes our MPs to rely on their positions for their income – they need to keep their seats at each election. This requires political party support, in the form of money (to sustain campaigning) and publicity (association with and membership of the party). These won’t be forthcoming if the MP defies his party too much.
MPs can and do dispute and restrain with their leadership over significant matters and collectively backbenchers are a formidable check on the government, but it remains the case that MPs often vote en masse and on party lines on matters of which they know or care little. This is inevitable – after all, most people vote based on national parties, with only a handful of MPs being elected based on their own character. But it is obviously frustrating to many people who would rather policy be evidence-based and not dependent on ideology. The Upper House should counteract this by providing an environment where legislators are less beholden to party patronage to the degree that it impacts their livelihood.
Appointment is the only method by which these points can be addressed – creating an effective chamber which supports the Commons and provides a genuine and reasoned alternative point of view. Appointment offers experts, still in their fields, who will not be tempted by party ambition or intimated by threats of losing the whip. Peers will still subscribe to ideologies, but their primary source of income will be in working in fields where credibility and evidence are of overriding concern. Appointment offers a long term view, by virtue of members being there for life. In short, it offsets all of the disadvantages of election while remaining a positive impact on parliament’s work. It is also quite cheap; an elected Upper House would be enormously more expensive, with nothing to show for it but satisfying the qualms of obsessives who take the wonderful principle of democracy too far.
Britain is and will remain one of the world’s greatest democracies with or without an appointed Upper House, but election threatens to undermine Parliament’s independence and place it further under the control of the Executive. Election is by no means the norm in the world, and it is an acceptable thing to keep it unelected as long as ultimate power lies with the elected Commons.