Reform of the House of Lords, our second parliamentary chamber, has been under discussion again recently. It was, despite some reaction from politicians, included in The Queen’s speech, the traditional announcement of the forthcoming legislative programme. The question on many people’s lips, or at least in their minds, is why is the government bothering about such almost arcane, certainly controversial, matters, when the economy is foundering, businesses are going bust and so many people are out of work?
I doubt any reforms will go as far as making any proportion of the chamber elected. It looks unlikely that all-party agreement (which is essential to any parliamentary reform) will be forthcoming to such a radical change. But all parties do now seem to agree that there are too many members in The Lords. So I guess some limiting figure will be put on the ideal size of a second chamber. But maybe nothing else will be done at the moment. How important is this?
The original system provided for a chamber of hereditary Lords and Royals, the aristocracy in other words, the landed gentry, and Bishops. It worked. It was a group of people, admittedly a group designated entirely by privilege, but a group who had no particular tie to a political party (you could argue that there were a disproportionate number of Tory sympathisers, given their vested interest in land, money and capitalism, but there were also Socialist landowners), and who could be relied upon to be sensible, learned in many cases, and even-handed. They provided a reasonable check to the unfettered politicking and power-broking of the Lower House, where nominally constituents were supposed to be the prime consideration, but where (as often now too) personal interests and lack of interest in the common good were rife. Despite its many flaws, I think it was a rather good system.
More recently, Life Peers, those made Lords by The Queen at the behest of the Prime Minister, have multiplied to outnumber the Hereditary Peers. I don’t think Royals are now listed as Members, so presumably only those that are also hereditary peers with their own land are on the list. Anyway, it has now become the norm for Prime Ministers, particularly after being newly elected, to nominate a number of new peers, in order to ‘right the balance’ of the political parties represented in The Lords. There are 25 Bishops and 90 Hereditary Peers, which would once have been the total size of the Second Chamber. But there are now also 231 Labour, 166 Conservative and 86 Liberal Democrat Life Peers. This is clearly ridiculous. There are only 650 MPs, but currently, there are 818 members of the House of Lords. So, far from being a mini-version of the House of Commons, which is what it might be with just a few ennobled members from each party, it has in fact grown cumbersome and almost meaningless as an impartial reviewing body.
You will probably gather from the above figures that The Lords contains members of other political parties (30) and some 154 non-party members. Wouldn’t it be a great second house if there were no party affiliated members and only the 270-odd unaffiliated Peers, Hereditary Peers and Bishops. I think that could work too.
But, needless to say, people still think of the Lords as a privileged anachronism and call for an elected body. I can see the simplistic thinking here. Elections to a second chamber would remove those who are only there by right and not by dint of competence. But the trouble is, we would still have to find a means of selecting the candidates. What would they offer? What would they promise? Would they have a political agenda and just replace the current crop of political cronies? Or would they have an independent agenda? Could there be such a thing without a Party? Perhaps they would be prominent or wealthy members of society and just replace the Hereditary Peers as a sort of nouveau riche peerage. They could then use their wealth to campaign on the basis of their achievements and capabilities. Or perhaps they would have unofficial constituencies and promise action in their local areas. But would they, without some form of affiliation, be able to deliver on any promise? And the fact remains, that all this would just add to the annual political diary. Do we really want yet more politicking and electioneering and more political expenditure on top of the local elections and General Election? I wouldn’t want to see it anyway.
But there are alternatives. I quite like, as I have made clear, the appointment of an unelected chamber by virtue of competence or apparent fair-mindedness. Why don’t we replace the political Peers with groups of such proved ability? A few successful company directors, say, or surgeons, or dentists, or magistrates, or academics of certain disciplines, such as law, or others (can’t think of any more for the moment, except estate agents or bankers, which most people would probably find unacceptable) who have achieved on the basis of expertise or widely-accepted talents. This would certainly bring The Lords up to date and ought to give us a chamber capable of serving the intended purpose.
But we come back to the question – why is the Prime Minster worrying about this now? It is not I suspect because he is concerned about any lack of competence in the House, but much more about its composition. He would normally be thinking now about Tory party members who might be elevated to The Lords; his party members are after all outnumbered by Labour members by about 20 (if you include hereditary peer party members). But this is not a Conservative Government, it is a Coalition, which means that there would also be Liberal Democrat nominations, who, once the Coalition comes to an end, would become opposition to the Conservatives. Cameron would have to appoint over 100 new Conservative peers to ensure he maintained some sort of superiority over opposition parties. And that’s not including the 200 odd independents and minor parties. Yes, this seems like a good time to stop this nonsense, to put a cap on the numbers and to try to maintain some sort of position of power, the existing balane at least, within the second chamber.
But reactions to the proposed legislation so far have been pretty muted, if not apathetic. Clearly my idea of a chamber of dentists and estate agents should be included in the discussion to elicit more animated debate.