A good question: What should we do with the House of Lords?
One question, four answers
‘Reform will take work’
What should happen to the House of Lords is a recurring quandary in UK politics. Given a blank piece of paper, few of us would design a second chamber resembling the current set up. Both constitutionally and democratically, it makes little sense. It is too big, too influenced by the governing party, too unwieldy, too elitist, too undemocratic, and too unrepresentative.
Tearing it all down and beginning again would be the preferred option for many. A commission led by the former prime minister Gordon Brown recently called for a future Labour government to abolish the House of Lords, replacing it with a slimmer, democratically elected second chamber. This seems a more palatable option than total abolition – provided the redesigned chamber looks exactly like the one I’d draw on my own hypothetical piece of paper. The precise shape of any new iteration of the Lords hangs on which of the ‘too’ statements above you think it most important to address….
Hannah Rich is Director of Christians on the Left and Senior Researcher at Theos
‘As a system it is indefensible, but the House still manages to do its job pretty well’
When showing visitors round the House of Lords it is quite a challenge to explain what it is. Most of the 800 members were appointed for life by previous prime ministers, but nearly 100 are there because of who their ancestors were, and 26 are there because they are bishops of the Church of England. Prime ministers can add new peers at any time, even if the body overseeing appointments disagrees. As a system it is indefensible, but the House still manages to do its job pretty well. Frequently it sends back to the Commons legislation which is either defective, or damaging to civil liberties or constitutional principles. Its members include many with long experience in public service, government, the law, medicine and science. They tend to know what they are talking about, and debates are less partisan than in the Commons.
The lack of democratic legitimacy means that it can be too easy for the government to use its Commons majority to overturn defeats it suffered in the Lords. So, some argue, an elected Lords would be too much of a threat to the authority of the Commons, and many Labour and Conservative peers resist change…
Alan Beith, a former URC Elder, was MP for Berwick and is one of the Deputy Speakers in the House
‘Expertise has added to the quality of public debate’
A few decades ago I would have had little hesitation in urging that the House of Lords be radically reformed or scrapped altogether. But in recent years, I have come to think differently.
I would still agree that, in many ways, the system is deeply undemocratic and symbolises social inequality. The very language of lords and ladies is a reminder of feudalism – all the more so because some hereditary peers remain members. That there may be now more members of the ruling class appointed directly by politicians, sometimes in dodgy circumstances, is hardly much comfort. And having bishops is an uncomfortable reminder that too close a relationship between state and religious leaders can compromise both…
Savitri Hensman is an activist, a writer and a contributor to the Christian thinktank Ekklesia
‘What counts is the calibre of the people you employ’
The late Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, in response to Nick Clegg’s attempt to restructure the House of Lords, said that the moment you introduce one representative into the Second Chamber, the constitution of the UK will be fundamentally undermined. The first time there was a serious financial crisis, or we faced a debate about going to war, she said, arguments would break out between the Commons and the Lords about who is more representative than whom. I think this experienced protector of the British Constitution is right. Look at the United States now and the mess they are in – not exactly the same – but it bears some comparison in terms of practical lessons learned.
I arrived in the House of Lords in 2007 as an independent peer on a serious learning curve. I now understand the important role this house plays in scrutiny and holding the government to account. I have seen, despite grand promises, lots of legislation coming up from the Commons that has never been tested in any real detail. Now it must face the test of peers, many of whom have been appointed for their expertise, and detailed and practical understanding of different aspects of the country’s life and innermost workings…
Andrew Mawson is a URC non-stipendiary minister, and Founder and President of the Bromley by Bow Centre
This is an extract from an article published in the April 2023 edition of Reform