Don’t kill the House of Lords, fix it

The New Year’s Honours bring new members to an institution stuck in the past

Source: Wikipedia

As we begin to recover from the New Year’s Eve parties and brace ourselves for the start of yet another year, there are new job titles awaiting those who have been appointed to the House of Lords in the New Year’s honours list. The recent appointments take the total up to 794 members, meaning it is the second largest chamber to China. Popular public opinion imagines the House to be an archaic institution whose members, kitted out in scarlet robes, rule the lives of the everyday person. The Lords’ function is to complement the elected House of Commons, by checking and challenging government.

Initially, it was designed to be an advisory body for the monarch, but with the emergence of the Commons in the 14th century, the Lords’ influence on affairs of the state diminished as the dominance of the Commons grew. Given its muted role, surely the contention concerning the House of Lords is misjudged?

Just by looking at the composition of the House, however, the cracks start to appear to reveal an outmoded institution. Women first entered the chamber in 1958 and calls for reform saw the New Labour initiative to reduce the number of hereditary peers in 1999.
Despite this, the House currently hosts more than twice the number of male members to female members and ninety-two of its members are hereditary peers.

David Cameron’s government saw the most members appointed by any Prime Minister, bloating the House. Therefore, when the bill to trigger Article 50 had to go through the Lords, the relevance of the House was once again brought into question.

Having the biggest democratic decision of our lifetimes requiring approval from an unelected body is difficult to justify, even though the Lords had no power in overturning the bill. This, along with circulating footage of peers falling asleep in sitting sessions has compounded to a very negative view of the chamber, out of touch with the public and unrepresentative of those they are instructed to serve.

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Hence, there have been calls to abolish the House. Whilst this appears to be a democratic proposal, in practice it undermines democracy as it both removes the crucial checks and balances to our government, and the expertise that the Lords bring to the table.
The House includes retired generals, trade union leaders and academics alike who use their experience to enhance our laws. Therefore, the House requires reform rather than removal. However, proposed reforms such as having a hybrid house of elected and appointed members, or even having a fully elected house are unworkable.

To do either would confuse the relationship between the two Houses and would attract politicians rather than the experts that the House prides itself on.

Instead, the reform that needs to occur must be more specific, targeting the aspects of the House that are particularly undemocratic, yet retaining its uniqueness.

Limiting the number of members by not having life peers, phasing out the remaining heredity and Lords Spiritual peers and means testing expenses (which currently stands at £300 a day per member) are some measures that would help focus the House and restore public faith.

Ultimately, it needs to be a more representative body. London has five times more members in the chamber than the north–west of England, despite the two regions having similar levels of population. Therefore, in order for the House to continue to be relevant and conduct its role to the highest degree it must both comprise and engage with all members of society.

By doing so, the public can invest their faith in the Lords knowing they will comprehensively carry out the work the chamber was designed to complete. It is time the comfort of being an established institution is challenged and the House acknowledges the necessity of reform.