One of the general assertions thrown about in political debate is that an appointed House of Lords is the antithesis of democracy. On the surface, this is correct – the House of Lords is not elected by the people and, therefore, does not seem to correlate with our democratic system. However, upon closer inspection, not only is the current status quo of the Lords to our benefit but, were it to be elected, politics would become even further removed from the people.
It is important, when analysing the House of Lords, to look at its function and role in the political process. Ultimately, the Lords’ role is to advise, scrutinise and assist – it is the ‘revising chamber’ of Parliament. When a Bill is passed by the Commons, Lords look closely at it, and recommend detailed changes or enhancements to specifics. This reality is at odds with the exaggerated descriptions of the chamber by left-wing politicians. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that the Lords “writes the laws of the land”, whilst Tim Farron has argued that it “undermines” MPs and “devalues” their work. However, the House of Lords does not make nor write new laws. Instead, using its impeccable expertise, it advises the Commons on how to adjust and edit their proposals. In fact, to further disprove the arguments of Sturgeon, Farron and many more, the Commons does not even have to consider the advice of the Lords. The Commons can simply, after a Bill has been passed between the Houses three times, overlook its advice.
So, already, we can see that the House of Lords is not the chamber of horrors that some would have us believe. Moreover, we can look further into why the Lords is serving its purpose very well. Indeed, many experts in their fields are currently peers in the House of Lords. For example, Lord Pannick QC (one of the UK’s most respected barristers), Lord Winston (one of the world’s leading medical doctors) and religious leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks all sit in the chamber and provide their diverse expertise. This means that when a Bill is passed by the Commons, a number of experts are able to scrutinise it in the Lords and provide technical advice. Without the House of Lords, or without the expertise that the Lords currently provides, legislation would not be subject to the necessary scrutiny.
An elected second chamber would indeed have an adverse effect on the legislature. If Lords were elected representatives, the House of Lords would become a House of Commons-lite. Only ‘career politicians’ would want to stand, and almost all of the expertise would be lost. To develop this even further, as the Lords only has secondary powers, and can be overruled by the Commons, all of the more ‘talented’ (whatever that means) and aspirational politicians would seek to become MPs. This would mean that the House of Lords would comprise only of second-rate politicians; those who could not, for whatever reason, win election to the Commons. Although the second chamber would be more democratic than it is now, ultimately democracy is not always to our advantage. In this instance, we would lose the first-rate expertise of the Lords, and have it replaced by second-class politicians.
There are, I hasten to add, some problems with the current system. The SNP’s Pete Wishart is, to an extent, correct to proclaim that the House of Lords is “a repository for the cronies and donors”. The pool of experts present is immense, but there does happen to be a disproportionately high number of friends and colleagues of political leaders. Lord Feldman is a peer thanks to having been David Cameron’s tennis partner for years, whilst Lord Bruce was made a Lord due to his 15 months as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats. I may appear a little cynical, but the number of Lords close to the leaders and former leader of the major parties is rising every year. If they do fulfil a high level of expertise, then they should be welcomed into the chamber, but those who do not are perhaps riding their luck. The House of Lords is not perfect, but I still believe it is a far sight better than some of the alternatives.
To return to the words of Sturgeon and Farron, they are, ultimately, wrong. The House of Lords does not “make the laws” but, rather, does an incredible job of providing advice, scrutiny and consultation to government. Were we to elect the House of Lords, we would be harming our political system beyond repair. Although it has its disadvantages, the level of expertise on offer in the second chamber in Westminster is probably the greatest in the world, and we cannot allow democracy to ruin that.