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Peer pressure to boost Lords reform?

Mark D'Arcy | 13:16 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

On the Turkeys/Early Christmas principle, a lot of peers instinctively oppose reform of the House of Lords, but there is one internal factor that may work in favour of change - it's getting rather crowded in the Bishops' Bar.

Forget the arguments about the nature and structure of parliamentary institutions in a democratic polity, forget the manifesto promises and a century of constitutional debate. When a chap can't get a table for dinner in the Peers' Dining Room, and when Noble Lords have to order their G&Ts in the Pugin Room to avoid the crush, there's a problem.

With a membership now in excess of 800, and more and more new peers arriving every week, the Upper House's normal collegiality is being strained by sheer population pressure.

The comment by "Ex Engineer" that the Lords should come up with a retirement mechanism for their more emeritus members is spot on - but difficult to deliver, since the writ of summons by which peers are appointed confers life membership, posing a knotty legal problem.

So most solutions revolve around some kind of voluntary recusal - and some include the prospect of continued access to the catering facilities and the Library.

Most schemes for moving to an elected house envisage phasing in the elected element, rather than expelling the current membership en masse - with reformers preferring to rely on what they tactfully refer to as "natural wastage" rather than provoke last ditch resistance to their schemes.

But the prospect of reduced crowding may generate more enthusiasm for change on the red benches than the constitutional case for reform ever will.


  • Comment number 1.

    As much as I'd love to have a go at the Tories for not sorting out reform of the Lords, its actually a total disgrace that Labour didn't address this in their 13 years in power.

    Its a total affront to democracy to have 800 unelected vested interests sitting making important decisions that do in the end affect legislation. Whats almost worse is that their powers are limited, exactly because they are not elected - so not even a proper check and balance on the Commons. it really is the worst of all worlds.

    200 PR elected Lords/Senators/Whatevers, elected every 5-10 years - not rocket science and I dont believe a Law cant be passed to allow this to happen.

  • Comment number 2.

    Around about the time of the launch party of BBC Westminster some 10 years ago. I recall some old cadaver in the House of Lords, making some important speech along the lines of how ridiculous the Labour government proposals were to un-restrict the Official Secrets Act. Then the walls fell silent and it was out with the old and in with the new bunch of cronies who passed every ridicules new law and amendment under the sun by shifting time honoured tradition and common sense in favour of a party political bench pressing Parliament Act.

  • Comment number 3.

    Mark, many thanks for taking the time to respond to yesterday's comment.

    In reply to 1:

    The sort of small Upper House you suggests works in plenty of other countries but it would work very poorly in the UK where the executive and legislative are intermingled within the Commons. This means that the work of the Lords as a reviewing chamber is much more essential than in other countries where there is greater separation between the Executive and Primary Legislative.

    Our system relies on the expertise within the Lords to act as a reviewing chamber to improve legislation. In this regard a LARGE upper chamber with the widest range of expertise and hence a minimum number of career politicians is what is required. A small, PR-elected chamber whilst having a democratic mandate could not review legislation anywhere near as effectively as the current Lords. Also, the Lords consists of many semi-retired life Peers who are selective in their contributions and not dependent on the Lords for income. This means that 'per head' the Lords are surprisingly cost effective.

    There are plenty of ways we could potentially combine the advantages of a large appointed house (expertise, continuity, independence and a long-term outlook) and an elected house (democratic legitimacy). As for what you term 'proper checks and balances'. No thanks. I think the USA repeatedly demonstrates (including tonight!) that they are invariably counter-productive. It is also worth remembering that we still have the ultimate 'check' of a Monarch with the power to dissolve Parliament.

    My main fear is that over-simplistic solutions such as yours will be put forward that whilst solving some issues, will cause others.

    In terms of tenure I think peers being elected for a single term only, but a very long one of 15-20 years (albeit with the potential to resign) would be most in keeping with our history and tradition. This could mean an average of 30-40 being elected every year, or a very manageable 90-160 being elected every three-four years.

    In terms of the elections themselves, I think it would be very worthwhile to split the house between nationally elected and regionally elected peers. Either option on its own has significant flaws. Ditching an extremely successful 'national' Upper House in favour of a regionally elected one risks losing a valuable wider perspective. It would also act against Independents with a national rather than local constituency.

    In terms of 'national' candidates, one obvious option could be for the candidate list to be 'appointed' in a similar way as 'non-political' Peers are currently appointed. The Government (with Opposition input?) could produce a list of worthy potential peers from a selection of individuals of non-political backgrounds, but the electorate would have the final say on who is elected or rejected. This would help ensure that people like retired Chief Constables, retired Military Heads, Religious Leaders, Academics, Medics, Industrialists, Diplomats and figures from the Arts and Media would still have a clear route into the Lords. Most importantly that route would not be in direct competition with career politicians.

    In my mind, some 'multi-list' or electoral college approach is essential to retain the expertise we currently have within the Lords. Simplistic elections just risk generating a 'Commons clone' populated by retired and 2nd-string politicians. A variation on a system combining traditional 'political candidates' throwing their hats into the ring on a regional basis combined with a list of nominees who are 'appointed' to their place of the ballet paper would seem worthy of more thought and discussion.

    Finally, the risk of reforms being too radical should not be ignored. The Lords is certainly 'flawed' but it is not currently 'broken'. If elected members are introduced, nothing precludes further reform in another 2-3 Parliaments time to fine-tune numbers and tenure. To that end, I think forcing existing life peers to go would be wrong and that erring initially on having small numbers elected for long terms would be the way to go.

    More feedback or thoughts are much appreciated.

  • Comment number 4.

    Ex-engineer - really interesting viewpoints and far more informed than my current knee-jerk views on this topic. I'll try and think through further as there are a few areas above I dont think I could agree with you on (too many upper house reps and you have too many plus points from current system for my liking!). I completely agree that it is key that we avoid any Commons mark2 institution - probably more damaging to democracy than any benefit there.

    Thanks again for thought-provoking post.

  • Comment number 5.

    Why not have some sort of exam combining knowledge of the legislature and procedures with a basic IQ Test. the former should actually be a precursor to get in the Lords in the first place and the latter could weed out the older ones in cases of senility.

    I suspect that many retiring MPs would not want or even pass such an exam and quite a few would struggle with an IQ Test!

  • Comment number 6.

    #3 Ex_Engineer

    Jeezo, blogg like this length might get you co-opted onto the next intake of this waste of UK tax £'s. This institution is expertly wound together like all similar mechanisims of the UK state apparatus ....Its a game played by the profesionals and have been for centuries, those humble amateurs like myself realise that change will never come aka AV. How dare we mere mortals tinker with the establisment!!

  • Comment number 7.


    You may have heard of Lords of the Blog, a collaborative cross-party blog on life and work in the House of Lords - it appears that one Lord Norton of Louth disagrees with you on your post!

    Ex-Engineer - an interesting suggestion. I'm personally not too fussed and think that the Lords do not need to be elected. The kind of people that get in there are often some of the best in their professions and quite commonly are still working, making them unable to campaign for election. I just don't see what advantage we'll get from it, and I'm not certain there won't be a down side.

    The Lords is, on the whole, an effective upper chamber - it defeated the last Labour government five hundred times while the Commons barely defeated it seven times. It needs improvement, but I'm not sure election will help.

  • Comment number 8.

    As the last government proved they wanted Lords reform but when the chips were down were quite happy to accept a position when offered.

    There is no need for there to be any more lords than their are MP's and no more should be chosen until by natural wastage that occurs.I am all for retaining the lords as a chamber there is far more sense talked in there than in the other place,but the cases that have come to light of people using it as a lobbying zone for their own or there parties sake have to stop.
    A way to easily remove members found to have denigrated their position has to be found,until it is , politics will remain tainted.

    I see a lot of sense in these suggestions 3. At 02:00am 9th Apr 2011, The_Ex_Engineer wrote:

    The tough part is getting the incumbents to make way for a new system ,as just like the humble limpet when it senses attack it will hold on for grim death.

  • Comment number 9.

    Rather than have a revolutionary change which may take years to complete (such as raised by Ex-engineer and, presumably, will be by Nick Clegg), following the precedent of 1999 reforms there is a way that there could be 'final' reform in months, which would prevent the House's excessive growth and combine the perceived virtues of appointment and election without the problems of hybridity (as published at ).

    The 1999 Act also helps deal with the problem of writs of summons - if the hereditaries can loose theirs then the life peers can too (or not be sent one for the next Parliament).

  • Comment number 10.

    Larkhan - Thanks for the steer. I hadn't spotted Lord Norton's riposte. But I'm afraid I have to disagree with the Noble Lord. He will have a better idea than me about the pressure in the Bishops' Bar. But I have heard plenty of peers complaining about the crush there and in the dining room and the other facilities - and plenty of MPs muttering about the colonisation of the Pugin Room by ex-MPs turned peers - and there are quite a lot of those. (I don't want to get into the issue of which house should control the Pugin Room - which seems to rival the Schleswig-Holstein Question in complexity). Perhaps some of the crowding is a temporary phenomenon, with new arrivals, quite understandably, wanting to celebrate their elevation with their chums.

    But the point remains - the huge numbers of new arrivals since the election leave the House of Lords absurdly large, and that does seem to be encouraging some peers to contemplate at least minimalist change. As other posters have pointed out, there is no shortage of suggested solutions to the shape of the Upper House, and I would be surprised if the impending Government White Paper was anything other than a warmed over concoction of some of those. What I do hope is that reformers will recognise that the current House of Lords actually does rather a good job of legislative scrutiny - and is certainly far better at it than the Commons. Changes that left the Lords less effective at polishing up bills sent to it by MPs would mean rather a lot of bad law bedevilling the rest of us.

  • Comment number 11.

    Looks like the the smoke & mirrors aka HOL reforms has done its job well! The hand is quicker than the eye! Do you really believe the grey folk that really run this country would allow dismantelling of an intrinsically linked establisment tool, DOH! So forget about AV, it will just never happen, never................

  • Comment number 12.

    reply to 3 the_Ex_Engineer

    I have much common ground with your suggestions and in fact set out similar ideas in January.
    Independently appointed list of candidates, the chance to vote for a party or independent list.
    One third of the house elected every 5 years (assuming a 15 year term and a 5 year fixed term parliament.
    Not sure I agree with regional peers.

  • Comment number 13.

    The House Of Lords does need to be reformed in a way that improves the behaviour of its members and ensures that it functions for the good of the people.

    Tighter regulations are needed and we need a fast track procedure to remove those who abuse their position.

    I quite like the idea of regional peers as having peers coming just from a few regions does not reflect the diversity of the nation or indeed the equality of peer appointments in a democratic way.

    If we had better regulation ordinary people would also feature more in the house as opposed to the surplus of public schoolchildren we get today.

  • Comment number 14.

    If the Lords were switched to a pure PR system where each party was handed a percentage of seats equivalent to their total national vote then most peers could keep their jobs.

    Each party would simply have to list, up front and in order, the names of all of their nominees. The rest would be automatic. It may not be perfect, but surely it's as simple as that : assuring the Turkey that we're eating Pork for Christmas dinner.


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