More than 20 years has passed since the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords in what was billed as the first phase of wider reform, and little has happened in the intervening decades. The Unit hosted a webinar to ask three long-serving parliamentarians what should change about the House of Lords, and how realistic is hope of major reform? Tom Fieldhouse summarises the discussion.
House of Lords reform is one of those issues that never seems to go away – in part because very little ever seems to happen.
This perennial, complex, and often contentious issue was the subject of a Constitution Unit webinar, held on 13 January, entitled ‘What can be done about the House of Lords?’, where a distinguished panel of parliamentarians discussed the difficulties that hinder reform, whether new approaches are needed, and what those might be.
The event was chaired by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Professor Meg Russell, herself an expert on the question of Lords reform. Speakers were Baroness (Angela) Smith of Basildon, Labour’s Shadow Leader of the House of Lords; Lord (Michael) Jay of Ewelme, Crossbench peer and former Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission; and Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Conservative chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee and former chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which has reported on Lords reform.
The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast.
Baroness Smith of Basildon
Baroness Smith began her remarks by suggesting that whereas most debates about Lords reform tend to focus on ‘form’ (namely, who is in the second chamber and how they get there), we should begin by focusing on ‘function’ (what we want the chamber to do, and how it can best achieve that).
She agreed with the opening remarks made by Professor Russell, that beyond Westminster, the public appreciates aspects of what the House of Lords does and how it operates, such as its detailed scrutiny of legislation, the independent nature of Crossbenchers, and its role in providing an important check and balance. However, she lamented the negative media coverage that the Lords often receives, while acknowledging that it needs to do more to better communicate its work.
Closely related to function is the working relationship between the two Houses, and the impact that has on perceptions of the House of Lords’ legitimacy. Baroness Smith suggested that both the present and previous governments seem to resent the chamber sending amended legislation back to the Commons – which is problematic given its central revising and scrutiny role.
In considering the effect of any major reforms on the function of the Lords, a key question is whether the Lords should continue to play a ‘subsidiary role’ (with powers limited to inviting the Commons to think again), or whether we would be happy to see more conflict built into the relationship. This question is particularly relevant to any discussion about making the Lords a fully elected chamber – an idea that she approached with an open mind. This example illustrates that questions of function and form are often difficult to separate.
Moving on to questions of form, Baroness Smith next considered the problem of the Lords having become too large. While acknowledging that the true number of peers who ever attend parliament is much smaller than the overall size of the chamber, she argued that the chamber’s membership needs to be smaller. One useful contributor would be for by-elections that replace hereditary peers to be abolished. There have been various attempts by peers to achieve this using private members’ bills, but these have not yet received support from the government. Baroness Smith also expressed her support for a core principle in the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House (the ‘Burns committee’), that the House of Lords should reflect the party makeup of the House of Commons over several general election cycles. Finally, the problem of newly elected governments adjusting the parliamentary arithmetic in the Lords (thereby inflating its size), is well known. Baroness Smith noted that since 2010, the Conservatives have enjoyed an increasingly large advantage over Labour in the Lords, which is making it harder for the chamber to carry out its scrutiny role.
Lord Jay of Ewelme
Lord Jay started by arguing strongly that, in holding the government to account and by revising legislation, the House of Lords plays a vital role in our constitutional arrangements that must be borne in mind during any discussion of reform.
However, he acknowledged that the very large size of the Lords and its appointment processes ‘bring the House into disrepute’ and reform is certainly needed.
Focusing on these twin challenges, Lord Jay explored various ideas for reform that could perhaps be said to represent a sliding scale of the desirable through to the possible.
First, he suggested that because the UK increasingly resembles a more federalised state, it might be desirable for the House of Lords to reflect this – with members representing Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the regions and cities of England. However, this could well prove unacceptable to the Commons because it would create a potential conflict between MPs (who would represent constituencies), and Lords members (representing overlapping regions and cities).
Next, Lord Jay explored the idea of putting the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HoLAC), on a statutory basis. While this would certainly be more achievable, it faces significant barriers. Such a reform would require time-consuming primary legislation and could change how HoLAC is constituted and operates. If HoLAC took on direct appointment powers for party peers, there would need to remain a mechanism for Prime Ministers to make ministerial appointments to the chamber. The biggest general obstacle to this change is that the government does not currently support creating a statutory commission.
Third, and referencing the recommendations of the Burns Report, Lord Jay outlined what he thought were the key changes that should be made to reduce the size of the Lords. He recommended that the Lords establish a cap on the size of the chamber; set an agreed timetable for reductions in members; and establish a rule or convention that members only serve 15-year terms. While getting such agreement would be challenging, these proposals sit more firmly in the realm of the possible. However, success still rests heavily on the Prime Minister of the day practising ‘relative abstinence’ in appointing new members – something outside of the Lords’ control and historically, very unusual.
Lord Jay concluded by tackling a perception that the independent Crossbenchers seem increasingly to side with Labour. He argued that Crossbenchers voting with the opposition are driven by a desire to get government legislation improved, rather than by partisanship. The perception changes over time, and when Labour was in government the Crossbenchers were ironically accused of being pro-Conservative.
Sir Bernard Jenkin MP
Sir Bernard began his remarks by rebutting the idea that ‘nothing changes’ – arguing instead, that the House of Lords is a dynamic institution that continues to evolve in both character and attitude.
While agreeing that the Lords has perhaps outgrown itself, Sir Bernard caveated this by exploring the relationship between the size of the chamber and its character. Echoing Baroness Smith, he noted that despite its large size, it is rare for more than a reasonable proportion of peers to attend at any one time. He suggested that peers attend debates when the issues at stake are important to them, or when they feel they have some expertise to impart. This helps to account for why much of what happens in the Lords is determined by ‘the sentiment of the political moment or the substance of the political issue’ rather than along party political lines. He suggested that the chamber’s large membership could even be regarded as an advantage, in that it creates a larger pool of expertise from which to draw. This suggests that while a reduction in the size of the House is desirable, achieving such a reduction requires considerable care.
In discussing the appointments process, Sir Bernard suggested that a more regulated system could threaten the potential of a government to appoint more peers to get its legislation through, which provides an important constitutional check on the House of Lords ever ‘going rogue’. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister’s power can be problematic, and he said that many Conservative MPs feel unhappy about the practice of appointing rich party donors who often play little active part in the chamber. He suggested that one solution could be to reform party political funding by placing a cap on donations, rather than reforming the appointment process itself.
Sir Bernard suggested that, while a lot of agreement exists about what we want the House of Lords to do (revise legislation, scrutinise the executive, be a check on the Commons), there is much less agreement about what we want it not to do. Here, he argued that most MPs do not want to see the House of Lords become so democratically legitimised that it starts to have a mandate to challenge the authority of the Commons.
Sir Bernard concluded his remarks by expressing two thoughts about why attempts to reform the House of Lords have so far failed. First, he suggested that although most MPs might support Lords reform, ‘no particular majority exists for any particular reform’. Second, he suggested that, despite outward appearances, the House of Lords may not have acted radically to reduce its size because there is less agreement among its members than is commonly assumed.
The Q&A session allowed the speakers to respond to each other, as well as introducing some new issues. These included an interesting discussion about the relative contribution made by hereditary peers (which identified some surprising ironies in the context of reform), and some challenging questions about diversity in the House of Lords. Other topics included a discussion of how Westminster’s bicameral system has been adapted in other countries; whether we should move to a unicameral system instead; and the dilemma whereby an increasingly effective House of Lords, might generate greater resistance from the House of Commons.
The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast. Visit our Events page for news of future events and video and podcast links for previous webinars.
About the author
Tom Fieldhouse is a Research Fellow & the Networks Coordinator at the Constitution Unit.