Briefing: Lords Reform 2012

Parliament first endorsed the principle of an elected second chamber over 100 years ago in the preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act.

There is considerably more agreement than we are often lead to believe. The following proposals were all put forward by a cross party group of MPs in a 2005 report called Breaking the Deadlock, the Labour government’s white paper published in 2008, the Coalition’s 2011 draft Bill and supported by the Joint Committee that reported in April 2012:

  • An elected second chamber - the exact percentage proposed has varied from 70%-100% but the principle of a majority elected with any appointed element being selected by a statutory appointments commission is firmly established.

  • Elections to be held on the same day as General Elections.

  • A proportional electoral system (the most frequently proposed is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, although the 2008 white paper did not take a firm view on the electoral system, it suggested that a number of systems including STV and open lists merited closer scrutiny.)

  • The functions of the reformed chamber should be the same as at present: initiating and revising legislation, subjecting the executive to scrutiny, and acting as a forum of debate on matters of public policy.

  • The new chamber should be considerably smaller - proposals range from 300-450 members - compared to the current House of Lords which has over 800 members

  • Long non-renewable terms (proposals ranged from 12-15 years), elected in thirds.

Why we need an elected second chamber

An unelected House lacks legitimacy.

  • At present the House of Lords monitors the government and can propose, revise, delay and veto new laws.

  • In a democracy, everyone who makes laws should be elected by the people and capable of being thrown out by voters. Currently Lords are appointed for life and therefore cannot be removed from office, even if they are convicted of a criminal offence.

An elected second chamber would be more effective and representative.

  • While the House of Lords often does a good job at improving our laws, it is constantly hampered by the fact that it has no claim to be representing the will of the people.

  • Governments constantly use the Lords’ illegitimacy as a reason for ignoring what it says. An elected second chamber would have more authority.

  • An elected second chamber would allow for members from smaller parties and independents to sit in the second chamber as working peers.

Party Patronage devalues politics.

  • The perception that people can buy a seat in the legislature has been a source of controversy for over a century. It undermines trust in our political system and fuels public cynicism about participation in politics.

  • Electing all members of the Upper House would mean that Peers were accountable to the public rather than their Party Leader.

The public want it.

  • A YouGov poll conducted in April 2012 found that only 5% of the public support a fully appointed chamber while 69% favour elections. A ComRes poll taken at the same time showed that 69% of the public favour an 80% elected second chamber.

  • A further YouGov poll in May 2012 found that 50% of the public want the government to proceed with Lords reform; only 26% said they should not.

  • More than 88% of the public voted for a party committed to an at least substantially elected second chamber in 2010.

Isn’t the House of Lords full of experts?

Unlock Democracy has published research that shows only around 10% of current members of the House of Lords are there specifically because of their expertise. Over 40% of current Peers have a background in active party politics.

Appointment to the House of Lords is not the only way to bring expertise into lawmaking. Experts could be brought into the second chamber through the Committee system to consider specific Bills rather than as full time members of the legislature. This would ensure that their expertise is both relevant and up to date.

Would an elected second chamber challenge the primacy of the House of Commons?

The government’s proposals would mean that two-thirds of the elected members of the second chamber would always have a less recent mandate than the House of Commons. A second chamber that was predominantly or wholly elected would always be subordinate, as the Commons gets its ‘primacy’ from how its powers are defined, not from elections. Existing legislation limiting the amount of time the House of Lords can delay legislation would still apply.

Wouldn’t two elected chambers create ‘gridlock’ and mean that nothing gets done?

An elected second chamber would be more assertive in examining proposals for new laws and holding government to account which would strengthen Parliament as a whole. It means the second chamber is doing its job: examining proposals for new laws and asking the government to think again.

Ultimately however, while a more assertive second chamber may challenge government legislation more frequently, it will still only be able to delay certain types of legislation by up to a year. This “nuclear” option would mean the final legislation would be as approved by the House of Commons; none of the second chamber’s amendments would be accepted. Thus the second chamber will always have an interest in seeking compromise with the House of Commons.

Aren’t 15 year non renewable terms are undemocratic?

Although 15 year terms are long by international standards they are much shorter than the current life appointments. Also non-renewable terms help to promote independence and reduce the potential for rivalry between MPs and Peers. Unlock Democracy supports 10 year renewable terms but the priority has to be introducing elections to the second chamber. It is also proposed that voters would be able recall elected members and that those with poor attendance rates would be made to stand for re-election.

Surely now is not the time to do this?

Of course the government needs to focus on the economy but it is possible to reform the House of Lords and also do other things. For example the 1944 Education Act, arguably the single biggest change to our education system, was passed when the country was at war. It comes down to the basic principle that the people who make our laws should be accountable. Also not all government initiatives need to involve legislation - indeed it could be argued that legislation is not the best way to improve the economy. There is nothing to stop the government from passing House of Lords reform while remaining focused on the economy.

Should there be a referendum?

Unlock Democracy believes that it should be possible for people to trigger a referendum on Lords reform if there is significant support for one.

This would mean adding a section to the House of Lords Reform Bill stating that once Royal Assent has been granted, opponents of reform would have a limited period of time, we suggest one year, to collect a specified number signatures. We believe that petitions from 5% of the electorate should be enough to trigger a referendum.

If the signatures were not collected within the time frame, the Act would be implemented as planned. If the requisite number of signatures were collected, then a referendum would be held. This would ensure that people can have a say if they want one but that the country does not go to the expense of a referendum if there is no demand for it.