The Lords still provides a valuable function, but it needs to reform now
The House of Lords’ rejection of the government’s proposed tax credit cuts a few weeks ago renewed a national debate regarding the legitimacy of the unelected upper chamber and whether it still has a place in modern-day Britain.
The British constitution is characteristically, well, British. Unlike a codified constitution that sits far above the humdrum of day-to-day legislation, the British state relies on various laws and conventions that stretch back a millennium.
This has enabled Westminster to adapt prudently and seamlessly to new political environments, a good example being the gradual erosion of de facto royal power over the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Nonetheless, a state founded in such a strange fashion is bound to produce strange offspring.
Enter the House of Lords: a chamber that slowly surfaced during the Norman period as part of the Magnum Concilium (Great Council) that advised the Crown and acted as an institutionalised interest group for the English nobility. Over the course of the last two centuries, the chamber has evolved (a rather appropriate verb to describe British political history) into a rather curious revising body.
To some extent, the Lords has become a chamber with a unique political role. Since the 1950s, and especially since the Lord's Act of 1999, life peers (those ennobled on merit to a title that dies with them) have taken over as the principle force in the chamber.
Appointment by merit enables the ennoblement of pre-eminent individuals in respective fields. This has produced a body comprised of first-class professionals and specialists from all walks of life, such as the late Baron Williamson, a senior British and European civil servant, or Lord Walton, former President of the BMA.
This enables a better quality of reviewing. Those with expertise can forward their ideas prominently in the legislative process in select committees. They can also compel government to rethink or amend a proposed bill by blocking it in the chamber.
Rather than diverting time and resources towards election campaigns, appointed peers can focus their energies upon their specialities, reviewing and amending legislation. Peers appointed for life are free from political hindrances, thus ensuring that the application of professional knowledge is untainted by partisan considerations or Commons-style antagonism.
However, there are issues that need addressing. Many elements of the upper house have remained the same since the reign of Henry VIII. The Church of England still appoints 26 Lords Spiritual who read prayers at the start of the day and vote on bills of their choosing. Moreover, even today, 92 Lords still owe their seats to birthright rather than merit.
This contributes to the image of an elitist, antiquated upper chamber. Indeed, it seems democratically perverse to grant an established church political power in an increasingly secular, multi-cultural Britain. Similarly, the existence of hereditary seats denies roles to those more able and therefore limits the effectiveness of the Lords’ professional reviewing role.
Furthermore, the independence of the Lords, so crucial to its effective function, is under threat from party affiliated peers. During Tony Blair’s first term, 203 life peers were created (referred to as ‘Tony’s Cronies’), owing their position to the goodwill of Downing Street.
Following the Lords’ rejection of tax credit cuts, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the idiosyncratic Conservative MP, argued that the government should flood the House with Conservative peers – thus undermining the influence of anti-government members.
Manipulating the makeup of the Lords greatly damages its effectiveness as well as its ability to check government power. An unmistakeably British constitutional characteristic is the role that undemocratic institutions play in protecting fundaments of democratic government. Peer review (pun intended) is one such way of holding government to account.
The expression “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” comes to mind: the Lords plays a crucial governmental role but is not infallible. Reform is needed, but an elected upper chamber would not be the panacea that many imagine.
Indeed, who’s to say anybody would even bother to vote? Voter turnout is in terminal decline. Introducing yet another election would only lead to the elevation of extremists (UKIP’s success as European elections springs to mind). What is required is a reform bill sensitive to the nature and purpose of the Lords and the British parliamentary system.
Following the tax credit ‘crisis’, which will undoubtedly return to haunt George Osborne at next week’s Autumn Statement, the media and Westminster need to revive and propose serious, unpartisan measures to retain the best aspects of the Lords whilst relegating the antiquated sections to a historical footnote on vellum parchment. Whatever reforms are proposed, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.