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The Lords: Are We Content?

A second chamber within Parliament to scrutinise the House of Commons is a good idea in theory. Many parliaments and governments around the world (not all) have second chambers...

By Ed Pond

A second chamber within Parliament to scrutinise the House of Commons is a good idea in theory. Many parliaments and governments around the world (not all) have second chambers: they are a safeguard against the executive having overbearing power, incompetence and corruption. But the House of Lords is not right, and never has been. It is a relic of the past not only because of the Norman French in ceremonies and the dressing up, but because it is appointed (for life) as opposed to publicly elected, with even some hereditary positions remaining. That went out with the feudal system, didn't it? There are not many checks and balances (except donation cheques, some might say) in how peers are appointed. Therefore the integrity a second chamber is meant to provide is compromised. It defeats the point.

 

804 Lords are currently entitled to sit in the chamber - way too many, given the Commons have fewer members. Since reforms in 1999, 92 remain hereditary. Strangely enough, unlike with other peers these actually go through an election process when the position becomes vacant after a death (the deceased's offspring is allowed to stand along with other nominees). Technically, hereditaries can still be appointed. A further 26 peers are non-partisan 'lords spiritual', made up of bishops and other clerics. The remaining 686 peers are 'life peers'. These are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the PM. The PM allows the other parties to nominate a quota of life peers and the independent Lords Appointment Commission to nominate a quota of crossbenchers, who are not from a political party. At the moment there are 177 crossbenchers, with 252 Tories, 202 Labour and 102 Lib Dems. Many lords do not even show up unless something high profile happens: average daily attendance in 2007 was assessed to be 408, nearly half.

 

Reform of the Lords has been an almost constant discussion point and feature of British political history. Their power was greatly reduced by the 1911 Parliament Act, after the Tory-dominated chamber refused to pass Lloyd George's radical budget in 1909, causing a constitutional crisis and general election. The liberals narrowly re-elected, Asquith passed the Act, and the Lords' ability to block legislation was effectively removed. To get the Act through, Asquith threatened to ask the Queen to create a thousand Liberal lords. The Tory lords realised they would lose control of the chamber and consented to it. Take note Mrs May.

 

Labour consistently campaigned for abolition of the Lords since the party's creation, seeing The Other Place as a bastion of conservative nepotism and anti-democracy.  Michael Foot was a great believer in this (and indeed leaving the EEC), but then Neil Kinnock arrived. Currently Lord Kinnock. Labour diluted their policy down to mere reform, which Tony Blair began in 1999, but didn't finish. Now Labour were in power, they realised it was useful to load up the chamber with Labour peers and underline everything Blair's government wanted to do. That's the game, of course, but it was short-term opportunism replacing party principle. It was used to reward party 'supporters' (donors, allegedly), friends of the leadership and long serving MPs, rather than genuine aptitude for the task. Despite the 1925 Honours Act forbidding the then-rife sale of peerages, the 2006-7 'Cash for Honours' scandal suggested similar practices were still occurring, and Labour was especially tarnished. Cameron later did the same in terms of rewarding political allies (not donors of course), with Clegg getting in on the action during the coalition years. This all serves to explain why the Lords voted for the two main amendments to the Article 50 bill. Disturbingly not a single Labour peer voted against those amendments, but then that is because Labour's lords have mostly been created by pro-EU New Labour leadership. Some of them (including ex-Commissioner Lord Kinnock again), are directly involved with the EU.

 

The Lords have little power in the 21st century; they can either ask for amendments or 'reject' legislation when it comes to them from the Commons. When rejecting bills, they have rarely won the fight in the end, because the 1911 Asquith trick is always hanging over them. The other function they have is to debate more obscure non-constitutional legislation before the Commons, staggering the workload so that the Lower House is not inundated: not a vital duty. Nevertheless, that is still way too much power for unelected people to have, especially as some are very questionable appointees. They can still frustrate and influence the process. They are even occasionally put in the cabinet, like Mandelson was by Brown, which cannot be right. The Lords' judicial functions were taken over by the Supreme Court in 2009. The 'Upper' House amounts to a glorified social club with financial perks (including the notorious £300 pound daily attendance allowance). Some peers are of course worthy individuals with strong public service ethics, and occasionally the Lords provides useful scrutiny; but overall, in its current form, it is unnecessary.


What do we do with the Lords? Find out in Part Two.


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