Article in PDF (Download)
House of Lords Reform: Keeping the Expertise
by Daniel Holt LL.B (Hons), Trustee of Disability Rights UK
The 26th July 2015 edition of English tabloid newspaper The Sun on Sunday published footage showing Lord Sewel snorting a white substance reported to be cocaine at a party with prostitutes in his London flat. Lord Sewel was a life peer in the House of Lords and held significant roles as its Deputy Speaker and Chairman of the Lords Committee for Privileges and Conduct, which investigates peers’ misconduct. He resigned from these roles on the same day and gave up his seat in the House of Lords two days later.
The Daily Mirror subsequently demanded that we ‘Now Let’s Get Rid of the Lot of Them’ in its emphatic headline. Complaints focus on the fact that unelected Lords can be a substantial obstacle to the elected Commons’ desire to introduce new laws either by blocking it within the confines of the Parliaments Acts, by making significant amendments to Bills or introducing bills themselves. There is further disillusion relating to how the executive can ensure that the majority of the Lords are of the same political party. This is achieved by electing new members and the public costs of maintaining an ever-growing upper chamber.
Talk of reforming the House of Lords is nothing new and has featured in the political agenda on numerous occasions since 1539. Further reform is desirable but a unicameral Parliament will not be considered and, as a result, abolishing the House of Lords is not thought of as a viable option. The Lords often occupy a seat because they have expert knowledge and skills in their fields. This is exercised to ensure effective and appropriate legislation. They also have time to consult with subject specialists, something the Commons lacks. The undemocratic nature of the Lords is overstated as the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 ensure the Commons can force through legislation. The 1911 Act limited the powers of the House of Lords by preventing it from blocking money bills that it did not give consent to within one month. It also stopped the Lords from stopping ordinary bills that had been introduced by the Commons in three successive Parliamentary sessions within a two-year period. The 1949 Parliament Act reduced this to two successive sessions within one year. This is a useful safeguard against undesirable or underdeveloped bills being enacted. There have been other recent reforms withdrawing the right to automatic hereditary membership and the ability to ban if imprisonment of one or more years has been imposed through criminal proceedings.
The scope of this article is regrettably limited because of the complexity of the issues and any proposed reform has to be compatible with a flawed Commons. This article has been written on the assumption that the lower house will not be reformed at any stage as it is unlikely given the current system favours the two major parties – the Labour Party and the Conservative Party.
Reformed Composition of the House of Lords
Reform should be modelled on the Slovenian National Council in order to preserve and strengthen the expertise of the Lords. The National Council is a body representative of social, economic, occupational and local interest groups.
Extrapolating this system of 40 seats and applying it to the UK undoubtedly has its difficulties as Slovenia has a much smaller population. These exact numbers would have to be increased to cater for a much bigger country. The current size of the House of Lords is excessively large with 781 seats plus 40 peers who are on leave of absence or are otherwise disqualified from sitting. It is far larger than any other upper chamber in the world and it continues to grow as ruling political parties push for the election of their supporters. The German Bundestrat has 69 seats, for example, while the Austrian Federal Council, Swiss Council of States and French Senate have 61, 46 and 348 seats respectively. The growing size causes numerous problems. Firstly, it increases costs that put a strain on the budget. Secondly, the growth of the House of Lords is detrimental to its ability to function effectively. This includes limited opportunities to debate, increased competition for opportunities to initiate business, reduced speaking times, increasing pressure on the Chamber’s mechanisms of self-regulation and difficulties gaining places on Select Committees.
The size of the House of Lords should be reduced to 152 seats, which would allow for one Lords leader, one deputy leader and 10 representatives in the following categories: Environment, Climate Change and Energy; Employment and Skills; Health; Business; Economy; Social Welfare; Social Inclusion and Inequality; Transport; Justice; Sport; Exports and Productivity; Education and Youth Development; Foreign and commonwealth policy and International Development; Devolved Nations; and Equality. There would be two representatives of each for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England and two neutral officials. There would be one representative for disability, sexual orientation, gender, age, gender reassignment, race, maturity/paternity and pregnancy, religion and belief and sex in the Equality seats.
There are particular disadvantages to the proposed composition. Firstly, each of the Equality sub-categories would only have one representative each. As to whether one representative could put forward competing ideas will be questioned. This is a particular challenge in relation to the religion and belief sub-category. There are numerous religions that have different faith systems that one person may struggle to balance. All peers, however, will be able to continue to hold select committees where interested peers can debate and explore an issue and request written or oral submissions. This will allow them to consider the views of all religions and, of course, competing views in that category. Secondly, finding two peers in the Devolved Nations category that can truly be considered as neutral because it is inevitable that they will reside in one of the nations. This may cause bias but their roles will involve facilitating the competing views and desires of that category.
House of Lords’ Elections
Arguments for an elected Lords are popular because it would allow for democratic appointment. Members of the Bundesrat, for example, are indirectly elected by the people’s representatives, the Bundestag, to represent 16 German regions. The Netherlands’ Senate is similar as its members are appointed by the States-Provincial who is directly elected to govern and represent particular regions. The two are similar but representatives of the general population elect the former whilst regional officials appoint the latter.
The UK’s Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected to represent citizens from different regions of the land called constituencies. There is one seat in the Commons for each person elected to represent each constituency, The UK Parliament, therefore, already represents different regions. This is, of course, limited as both many prospective and elected MPs belong to a political party that has uniform policies to which all members are obliged to conform. Mirroring this system in the Lords is possible through the mayoral system, where each mayor would occupy a seat in the Lords. This requires a change in the system as not every city or town has a mayor or wants one. It would also be unnecessary because regions are already represented in Parliament. It would prove to be detrimental too for several reasons. Firstly, the expertise of the Lords, which is its best quality, would be lost. Secondly, the views and values of each Lord would become transient and change to appeal to popular opinion if they were to be directly elected. This is a difficulty of the Commons, as evidenced by its recent shift to the right. Similarly, problems would persist if they were to be indirectly directed though members of the Commons. The ruling majority in the Commons would try to ensure that most of the Lords were of the same political colours as they do already.
The proposed reformed House of Lords would have representatives for each of the categories above. Persons who wish to fill the roles would campaign to put forward their merits and ideas in order to attract votes, as MPs do for their seats in the Commons. The prospective Lords peers, however, would not be seeking to impress the population of their constituency. They would be looking to gain the support of groups, organisations and charities concerned with the category or subcategory that they intend to fill. Each interested group, organisation and charity would have to register its wish to vote in a particular category. This would work in the same way citizens register to vote in elections. Any reformed House of Lords, as a result of their unelected nature, would continue to be subordinate to the Commons and the Parliament Acts would continue to apply. The procedures of expelling Lords would also remain the same.
Elections would take place every five years to mirror the Commons’ term period. The Lords’ elections, however, would have to take place in a different year as it may cause complication and congestion.
This new composition would address the issue of life and hereditary peers as they would no longer exist. Interested groups, organisations and charities would elect all representatives. This is a system that would create a Parliament that combines the peoples’ representatives in the Commons and the expertise of the Lords. This would allow for well-considered legislation created with a better understanding of different issues in society and the consequences they may have. It is a system to better society where seats are earned rather than given through entitlement and party allegiances.
I must thank my friend Torniké Liparteliani for his political knowledge and advice.
© Daniel Holt
Daniel Holt LL.B (Hons) is a postgraduate student at the Centre for Commercial Legal Studies, University of London. Daniel previously obtained a law degree from Queen Mary, London’s highest-ranking law school. His main interests are in equality and human rights, particularly the UK’s Human Rights Act that gives citizens access to the European Convention of Human Rights. His concentrations, in this regard, are focused on privacy and how this right is utilised in the modern digital world. He is also heavily invested in the equal rights of all citizens and equal opportunity for disabled people. He also concerns himself with constitutional law, administrative law, public law, mental health law, European Union rights, family law and access to justice. Daniel has written on these topics for online media outlets, which include The Advocate, and his own blog. He founded Being Disabled in a Normal Society and works with other organisations including Disability Rights UK, Stonewall, Access to Justice Foundation and Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre.
Daniel’s contact details and published work can be found at: http://www.danielholt.org.