What can be done about the House of Lords?

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).  

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The Grocott Bill and the future of hereditary peers in the House of Lords

Today the House of Lords will announce the election of a new hereditary peer. Lord (Bruce) Grocott has once again put a bill before parliament to abolish the by-elections by which departing hereditary peers are replaced, following the removal of their automatic right to a seat in parliament in 1999. As David Beamish explains, the bill is unlikely to succeed despite having a great deal of support both inside and outside of the Lords. 

Following the Labour government’s reform of the House of Lords in 1999, 90 elected hereditary peers (as well as two office-holders, the Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain) remained part of the House of Lords, with – pending the promised second stage of reform – a system of by-elections to replace any who subsequently departed. The second stage did not happen and the by-elections remain as one of the strangest quirks of the UK constitution. In a 2018 blog post on the ongoing frustrations of those who sought reform to this system, I was rash enough to conclude that ‘there may nevertheless be some prospect of real progress in relation to both the size of the House of Lords and the ending of the hereditary peer by-elections’. The past three years appear to have proved me wrong.

House of Lords Standing Order 9(5) requires a by-election to be held within three months of a vacancy occurring among the hereditary peers (due to a death or retirement). This was suspended after the start of the pandemic in March 2020, alongside the postponement of local authority elections, initially until September, and then to the end of that year. Following a report from the Procedure and Privileges Committee, there was then another extension of the moratorium. A further report from that committee proposed yet another ‘short further suspension, until after Easter 2021, at which point the position should be reviewed again’. Finally, following another report from the committee, by-elections restarted, with a backlog of six vacancies to be filled.

There are five different electorates for by-elections: 15 of the 90 were elected by the whole House, and all members can vote in by-elections to replace them. The other 75 were elected by hereditary peers in their respective groups: 42 Conservatives, 28 Crossbenchers, three Liberal Democrats, and two Labour. The remaining hereditary peers in those groups can vote in by-elections to replace departed colleagues. Only four separate elections were needed when the moratorium on by-elections ended, as three of the vacancies were among the Conservative peers, and all three were filled together. For the first time, the arrangements were for the ballots to be conducted ‘using electronic means’, with the option of a postal vote for members ‘who have accessibility needs which mean they cannot use the online voting system or who do not have a parliamentary email address’. The four by-elections took place in June and July 2021.

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How do you solve a problem like judicial review reform?

The Independent Review of Administrative Law (IRAL) announced last autumn has been much criticised for both its remit and its process. Joe Tomlinson and Lewis Graham offer an early assessment of the review, highlighting the flaws in its conception and design. They also acknowledge that the recently announced review of human rights seems not to be repeating the mistakes of IRAL.

In our constitutional system, it is a reality that central government wears two hats in relation to the judicial review system: the actor chiefly responsible for the design and management of the system in practice and the key ‘repeat player’ defendant. It is almost inevitable that, from time to time, tensions will result from this arrangement. Indeed, the UK has a rich history of governments of different political stripes ‘clamping down’ on the judicial review system and ‘striking back’ against specific court judgments. When such moments occur, they understandably provoke a form of constitutional anxiety that is familiar in the UK: a sense that the government is allowed to mark its own homework (or at least to exercise influence over the marker). While cyclical anxiety about the position of judicial review and looming reforms may be better understood as a feature not a bug of our contemporary system, startlingly little attention has been paid to the issue of how reform to the judicial review system ought to be considered. 

The importance of the reform process adopted was on display recently when, after being on the wrong side of a series of high-profile court cases, the government announced that the time was right for a new wide-ranging reconsideration of judicial review. It was clear immediately that this review—styled the Independent Review of Administrative Law (IRAL)—promised to be the most expansive policy examination of judicial review in decades. It is chaired by Lord (Edward) Faulks—a former Conservative Justice minister and now a crossbencher in the House of Lords—and constituted of a small group of academics and practitioners. Six months or so later, there has been much angst about potentially regressive changes being proposed and the defence of the current system has been robust. However, at the same time, many have been pointing to what they perceive to be significant deficiencies in the reform process. Features of the IRAL process which have drawn criticism include:

  • Confusion over the parameters of review: IRAL’s formal Terms of Reference have been described by Mark Elliott as ‘replete [with] syntactical errors’ and commentators have drawn attention to a number of ambiguities relating to the scope of the Panel’s mandate. For example, whilst the Review’s Call for Evidence confirmed that it was ‘considering public law control of all UK wide and England and Wales powers only,’ it seemingly left open a number of questions as to how any proposed changes to the law would affect devolved institutions (see here, here and here). The consultation also contains a paucity of relevant information, in contrast to previous consultations, which included details of the specific proposals and empirical data being considered. 
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Will the Lords block the UK Internal Market Bill?

Parliament will this week begin debating and scrutinising the UK Internal Market Bill, which the Northern Ireland Secretary has already acknowledged will, if passed in its current form, place the UK in breach of international law. When the bill reaches the upper chamber, what sort of treatment will it receive? Might the Lords block it? Unit Director and Lords expert Meg Russell offers her view.

Widespread shock greeted this week’s news that Boris Johnson hopes to set aside elements of the Withdrawal Agreement related to Northern Ireland – particularly when Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted to the House of Commons that the UK Internal Market Bill drafted to achieve this ‘does break international law’. Former Conservative Prime Ministers Theresa May and John Major, and senior government backbenchers, loudly protested. Former Conservative Solicitor General Lord (Edward) Garnier expressed surprise that the government’s law officers – those ministers expressly charged with protecting the rule of law – hadn’t resigned.

After an emergency meeting, the European Commission vice-president demanded that the UK withdraw the plans. The Irish Taoiseach described them as ‘extremely divisive – and dangerous’, while the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that breaching international law would mean ‘absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement’.

There are clear questions over whether such a controversial bill – whose Commons second reading is on Monday – can secure parliamentary approval. Specifically will it, as some suggest, be blocked by the House of Lords? A prior question is whether these provisions will make it through the House of Commons. Despite Johnson’s majority, Conservative dissent is unusually intense. This is unsurprising since, as many have recently quoted, that most iconic of Conservative prime ministers Margaret Thatcher consistently emphasised respect for the rule of law as a core Conservative value.

There is actually a prior question even to this, regarding whether the Commons will actually be asked to approve the offending clauses. In parliament the ‘law of anticipated reactions’ generally applies: sensible governments facing a likely Commons defeat will retreat on legislation if they can. When Charles Walker, vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, was asked whether Conservative MPs would vote against the bill (21:18), he responded ‘I doubt we are to get to the stage where we are asked’. This implied that the Prime Minister would hear the drumbeats, and back down.

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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. Continue reading