Lords reform is back on the agenda: what are the options?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgSince December’s general election, proposals for Lords reform have abounded – emerging from both government briefings, and proposals floated during Labour’s leadership contest. Meg Russell, a well-established expert on Lords reform, reviews the wide variety of options floated, their past history, and their likelihood of success – before the topic may get referred to the government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights Commission.

Reform of the House of Lords is a perennial in British politics. Elections come and go, political parties often make promises to reform the Lords, and generally political obstacles of various kinds – or simply just other political priorities – get in the way. As indicated below, and chronicled in my 2013 book The Contemporary House of Lords, some proposals still under discussion have been mooted for literally hundreds of years. Occasionally breakthroughs occur: significant reforms included the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 (which altered the chamber’s powers), the Life Peerages Act 1958 (which began moving it away from being an overwhelmingly hereditary chamber), and the House of Lords Act 1999 (which greatly accelerated that process, removing most remaining hereditary peers). Since this last reform there have been numerous proposals, through government white papers, parliamentary committee reports and even a Royal Commission (which reported in 2000), but little actual reform. The last major government bill on Lords reform — abandoned in 2012 — was under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Its sponsor, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, no doubt came to agree with renowned constitutional historian Lord (Peter) Hennessy, who has dubbed Lords reform the ‘Bermuda Triangle of British politics’.

Nonetheless, following December’s general election the topic is firmly back on the agenda. The Conservative manifesto flagged it as a possible matter for discussion by the promised Commission on the Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights (which is yet to be established). Various proposals from the government side have been floated in the media – the most eye-catching perhaps being a suggestion that the House of Lords might move to York. Meanwhile, other Lords reform ideas have featured in debates during the Labour Party leadership (and deputy leadership) contest. As often occurs, the topic has also been made salient by concerns about new appointments to the chamber.

This post reviews the various suggestions recently made, commenting on their originality (or otherwise) in the debate, the challenges that they pose, and their possible chances of success in the months ahead.

A ‘chamber of the nations and regions’

The first idea to emerge after the election came from the government side, in the shape of a ‘second chamber of the nations and regions’. This, it was suggested, might help ‘cement the union’. Similar suggestions have been commonplace in recent years (for a full review see here), dating back at least to the report of the Royal Commission. Labour embarked upon Lords reform at the same time as devolution, and it was natural to try and link the two. This was also rational based on international experience – many second chambers around the world (particularly but not exclusively in federal states) are structured using sub-national units. There are various models for this representation: second chamber members may be directly elected (e.g. Australia, US), indirectly elected by members of subnational legislatures (e.g. Austria, India), appointed centrally (Canada), or drawn from subnational governments (Germany). Labour was firmly committed to this model under Ed Miliband: the 2015 manifesto promised ‘an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions’, but little detail was provided. More recently this idea has been floated by the Constitutional Reform Group chaired by former Conservative Leader of the Lords, Lord Salisbury. Its main model for a territorial chambers suggests that this should be majority elected, minority appointed. Broadly similar arrangements were set out in the Clegg bill, and supported by the Gordon Brown government. Some version of this model is almost certainly the destination for any large-scale reform, but the devil is in the detail (e.g. size, distribution of seats, length of terms, inclusion of indirectly elected or appointed members). One obstacle to genuine territorial links is the lack of devolved structures throughout much of England. Another is that such a plan will not win the backing of nationalists (e.g. the SNP), who favour a looser rather than tighter arrangement at the centre of the UK. Such nationalist pressures have undermined reform in other countries such as Canada and Spain.

Moving the House of Lords to the north of England

Unlike the previous well-rehearsed proposal, this suggestion is completely new. The most widely-discussed idea is to move the chamber to York, though other locations such as Birmingham have been suggested. Like the previous proposal, the objective here is a kind of territorial rebalancing, and linking other parts of the UK more closely into parliamentary arrangements. However, while some have welcomed the proposal locally, and government insiders have got as far as scoping out a possible site, other locals have derided the idea as ‘symbolic and superficial’, and it has been dismissed in the Lords itself. Leaving aside the short-term upheaval of a move, it is a fundamental consideration that among the 79 bicameral parliaments around the world, all but one base both chambers in the same city – and the single exception (Côte d’Ivoire) created its second chamber less than two years ago. And there are good reasons for this pattern. First, if ministers and government officials are to be held accountable to both chambers (e.g. answering questions and piloting bills, as happens on a daily basis in the Lords), geographical proximity is important. Second, a great deal of informal politics is done in the corridors at Westminster. If MPs and peers were separated, conflict between the two chambers would likely become much more frequent. Such concerns have led significant doubts to be expressed about this plan by figures as prominent as former Conservative leader (and Yorkshireman) Lord (William) Hague. Before it can be taken wholly seriously, a great deal more thinking would need to be done.

Abolishing the Lords

This proposal has also rarely been aired in recent years, but resurfaced during the Labour leadership election, in a suggestion from Rebecca Long Bailey. In one respect this was perhaps an unsurprising idea from a left-winger: in the previous heyday of the Labour left the party briefly favoured abolishing the Lords – the proposal appeared in the 1983 manifesto, but was dropped by 1987. When the House of Commons voted in 2003 on a series of options for Lords reform, abolition was included (as a last-minute amendment), and defeated by 390 votes to 172. Notably just two Conservatives supported the proposal. The primary argument against abolition (again aside from straightforward upheaval), is that the UK is a large and diverse country – features which tend to be associated with bicameral parliaments. In addition, the Lords performs many important scrutiny functions which would somehow have to be compensated by changes in the Commons if Westminster became unicameral.

An elected House of Lords

Notably, Long Bailey seemed to quickly change her position to suggest replacement of the Lords with an elected chamber, rather than all-out abolition. This is a more mainstream proposal, which has been frequently made in recent years – though most suggestions have also included a minority of appointed members (in order to retain experts and political independents). Since virtually all suggestions for election have proposed using national and (in England) regional boundaries, this proposal merges with the one above for a chamber of the nations and regions – though not all of those favouring election strongly emphasise the devolution angle. Those most committed to linking the second chamber to the devolved bodies often prefer some element of indirect election, though that is complex to implement in the UK system (for reasons given above).

Introduction of a retirement age

Alongside the initial ‘nations and regions’ briefing, some Conservative sources suggested that a more incremental reform might be more achievable – in the shape of introducing a compulsory retirement age for peers. This has also been frequently discussed in recent years, partly on its own merits (bringing peers into line with, for example, senior figures in the judiciary and the church), and partly as a means to reduce the ballooning size of the chamber. The median age in the Lords is around 70 (meaning that half of members  are younger than that, and half are older), and several groups have proposed a retirement age of 80. One important difficulty with a fixed age, as pointed out by the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, and previously on this blog, is that age is not distributed evenly between party groups in the Lords. At present, Labour peers and Crossbenchers are the oldest, so would be hit disproportionately by a retirement age. This could, of course, be compensated if necessary through new appointments.

Regulation of prime ministerial appointments

Another difficulty with a retirement age is that it alone will not solve the chamber’s growing size: the primary problem is that successive prime ministers (though, notably, not Theresa May) have made unsustainably high numbers of appointments. The idea of limiting executive patronage regarding the Lords is the oldest one in the book: as early as 1719 a bill was introduced proposing limits on the number of new peers that could be created – but this was never passed. In January, the Lord Speaker (former Conservative Cabinet minister Norman Fowler) proposed a moratorium on new appointments until the size of the Lords is sorted out, fearing that numerous new appointments may be coming. He had previously established the aforementioned committee, chaired by Lord Burns, which made detailed proposals to bring the size of the chamber down to 600 members – including clear limits on appointment numbers. These central proposals were later endorsed by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (I should declare an interest here, as specialist adviser to both of these committees). The Constitution Unit has researched this matter, and published a report calling for a moratorium as early as 2011. The research indicated that without control on appointments the size of the chamber could reach 2000 or more. There is widespread support in the Lords for action on this matter, and it seems increasingly urgent – but requires the Prime Minister to surrender patronage power.

More democratic means of choosing nominees within political parties

Finally, concerns about specific individuals rumoured for imminent appointment spurred a suggestion from Labour deputy leadership candidate Angela Rayner that the party should democratise its internal system for choosing nominees for the Lords. Currently the main parties leave choice over appointments entirely to their leaders, though the Green Party has used internal elections, and the Liberal Democrats have in the past included some member involvement. Clearly, in the absence of formal change to the appointments process, parties remain free to reform their own internal processes as they see fit – though under current arrangements the Prime Minister remains in control of how many nominations are made, when, and how these are divided between the parties.

In conclusion, there have long been various proposals on the table for Lords reform. Some matters now under discussion have a long history, while others are more unexpected (and consequently, less well thought-through). Historically, the pattern has always been that large-scale changes to the Lords have proved difficult to achieve, but more incremental ones occasionally succeed. Even those changes which in retrospect fundamentally changed the chamber (such as introduction of life peerages in 1958, or removal of most hereditary peers in 1999), were seen at the time as small and inadequate. This is an important lesson for would-be Lords reformers, including possibly members of the government’s new Commission. In planning Lords reforms there is much useful evidence from around the world to draw on, but it is also important to learn from our own history – and not let ambition get in the way of achievable reform.

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On 4 February 2020 the Constitution Unit held a seminar with two Conservative insiders, Lord (Andrew) Dunlop and Chris White, to discuss the government’s likely approach to constitutional reform. You can watch the video on our YouTube channel.

About the authors

Professor Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit, and a Senior Fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe studying ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’. Her books include The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Featured image credit: House of Lords Members debate EU Withdrawal Bill September 2019” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by UK Parliament