House of Lords Reform: What I Support
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.)