Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

What is the House of Lords for?

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House of Lords

House of Lords

Ninety-nine years ago today the British Parliament passed the Parliament Act. It limited the powers of the House of Lords and set up as official the idea that the chamber should be democratized. The Parliament Act 1911 also changed the way the House of Commons operated by reducing the maximum term of that chamber from seven to five years and introducing MP’s salaries (then at £400 p.a.). These Commons measures were along the lines of what the Chartists and others had long been campaigning for: shorter terms to give the electorate greater voice (because we can vote more often), and wages for MPs so that a private income is not needed to take up the political ‘hobby’.

HH Asquith’s Liberal government introduced the Parliament Act 1911 to curb the powers of Tory opposition, which were deeply entrenched in the House of Lords. Since its passing, the act has been almost always a tool in its use and threatened use by the political left against a fundamentally reactionary second chamber. It has been used to circumvent the Lords to create a disestablished Church in Wales, provide legislation for Irish Home Rule (although never implemented under that 1914 act, and later repealed), to reduce the Lords’ delaying powers further in the Parliament Act 1949, to allow UK courts to try Nazi war criminals, to introduce proportional representation in UK elections to the European Parliament, to equalise the age of consent for homosexual men with that for all others at 16, and to legislate against many forms of hunting. One could form the opinion that the Lords are stuffed full of supporters of the Established Church (Anglican bishops might count among their number!), imperialists and colonialists, those willing to hang onto power at all costs, Nazi sympathizers, campaigners against PR, homophobes,  and fox hunters; one could form that opinion of our noble legislators if one wanted.

New Labour made a stab at reforming the House of Lords, moving us away from legislators who sit by virtue of their family tree to those who catch the eye of a prime minister or leader of the opposition. It cannot be called a radically democratic move, but it was a start. So, in the last year before the centenary of the Parliament Act 1911, what do we do with the House of Lords?

  1. Leave it alone, no one cares about it — There are many other things far more important than Lords reform; fair enough. However, there’s a limit to how long a democracy can suffer the presence in the midst of its constitution of what is alternately a white elephant and reactionary wet blanket: perhaps a century? We need to ask ourselves whether we need to pay for a retirement club for politicians, or a bauble to pay for favours, like Ashcroft’s underwriting of the Tory Party.
  2. Scrap it — Lots of other countries get by with one democratically elected chamber without having to have a second chamber (unicameralism): New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Turkey, South Korea, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Portugal and many more. However, if we abolished the House of Lords, we would have the problem that there is no effective means of limiting prime-ministerial power (not that there’s very much at the moment), seeing as the prime minister commands a majority in the House of Commons and the monarch is constitutionally bound not to oppose a prime minister. So, those who think that scrapping the Lords is the easy option should think again; such a move would require serious rewrite of our constitution in order to provide some checks and balances against the prime minister.
  3. Elect the lot — In the last government, the trend was in favour of electing 100% of the Lords, and perhaps renaming them ‘Senate’ (inspired!). The proposal came with the idea of electing the new second chamber in thirds (only electing a third of the membership at each election, so that senators sit for longer terms and represent the last three general election results). This idea is important because an elected upper chamber should be electorally different from the lower chamber, otherwise we would end up with two houses of Parliament that are exactly the same. Loads of other ideas on how to make elections to the Lords distinctive could be bandied around, but the question to ask is why we might want this or that distinctive election system to give some balance to Commons power.
  4. Appoint some experts — A considerable minority are in favour of appointing some or all of the Lords. The reason is usually given that this would allow the appointment of various experts to be available to review legislation. However, legislators are expected to provide principled voice on all legislation, not just stuff that’s within their expertise. The place for experts is in the committee rooms to give advice to legislators, not to be legislating themselves. Even if someone thought up a better appointments system, these appointed legislators would have a rather limited mandate and appointments breed corruption.
  5. Do something different — I would quite like to see an upper house composed of people chosen by lot from among those eligible to vote, a bit like a national jury service. This could ensure an incredibly representative body with people from all walks of life, but would drastically reduce the number of legislators from politically involved backgrounds, replacing them with teenage mums, bricklayers and the unemployed. There would be lots of women, and fully representative numbers from ethnic minorities. Pay them £20,000 p.a. with free housing and decent expenses, expect them to do a year’s training before going to Parliament and give them a scheme to get back into work at the end of their term.

If you want to send a message that reform is needed now, please use the form from POWER2010.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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