The Lords are undemocratic, unaccountable and, thankfully, useless; an anachronistic relic that should be relegated to history. Or so the well-worn argument runs. Yet the Lords have been proving every naysayer wrong over the last couple of weeks in doing exactly what any self-respecting parliament should do – holding the government to account.
Now I would like to see a democratic Lords as much as anyone, but I have, to my surprise, found myself momentarily thanking the gods of democracy for passing Britain by, and giving us the current crop of peers who are pointing out the obvious pitfalls in the government’s ham-handed attempt at welfare reform.
The Lords have enacted six defeats to the government’s flagship welfare bill, including rejecting the proposal that single parents should be charged to use the Child Support Agency – charged for help to get money from the other parent that their child is entitled to. They also supported an amendment that would exempt child benefit from the £26,000 benefit cap. While £26,000 sounds like a substantial amount of money (and is for most – it is equal to a salary of £35,000 after tax) it could leave families surviving on just £100 a week after housing benefit pays the rent on a flat or house in the South East.
Now I am not against welfare reform in principle – the system costs over £200 billion a year, and has indeed meant that some people can afford to stay permanently out of work. The proposed benefit cap is also wildly popular, with even 69% of Labour supporters in favour of it. However, most people on benefits are not the “scroungers” the Daily Mail loves to harangue – the rising number of people claiming benefits are mostly the swelling ranks of the unemployed. And even columnists on the Daily Mail could not bring themselves to support slashing 20% off the budget for disabled benefits. Welfare reform was always going to be a messy business, but with unemployment a persistent problem as the economy still stutters, it needs handling with more care than ever.
And this is where the Lords have been proving their worth, by picking apart the welfare bill, and forcing the government to think twice about the true effects of what it is proposing. This is far more than MPs have been doing lately – in stumbling efforts to prove their economic mettle, Labour have been falling over themselves to support the coalitions’ cuts and the benefit cap (although shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne did write to Nick Clegg proposing regional variations in the cap).
Now, regardless on where you stand on the coalition’s policies, any good democracy should have a parliament that actually scrutinises legislation and government policy. This is something in which the UK has always been sorely lacking, in no small part due to the toothless status of the Lords. However, the actions of the Lords in the past couple of weeks has provided a taster of what actual scrutiny could really be like (and yes, I for one, am happy to put up with a bit of deadlock in return for some actual accountability).
Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith, has, unsurprisingly, insisted that the government will overturn all six defeats inflicted on the welfare bill by the Lords (though he has mooted that other concessions may be introduced before the vote in the Commons on Wednesday). This will comfort those who balk at the obvious democratic deficit in the upper chamber. The amendment to exclude child benefit from the cap, for example, was put forward by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, with the strong support of all 26 spiritual peers. While the amendment itself was welcome, the intervention of bishops in a country where regular church attendance is less than 7% served to remind everyone of the blatantly unrepresentative make up of our second chamber.
This is why we need an elected Lords. Creating an elected second chamber that still retains the expertise and relative impartiality of the current House of Lords would be no easy task (though what qualifies Lord Alan Sugar to vote on heath reform is beyond me). If, however, we had a democratic upper chamber, governments could no longer afford to ignore parliament. Then, we might really have an accountable government on our hands.