House of Lords Reform

My Lords, in preparing for this debate I was reminded of the old adage, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. There is nothing wrong with the present composition of this House and I would prefer to leave it unchanged. Any debate about this system would lead to a frustrating inability to achieve any consensus on moving in one direction or the other.

In these new circumstances, we should reconsider the need for an elected chamber. The great strength of your Lordships’ House is that it contains not just a group of experienced retired Ministers and Members of Parliament but a whole raft of individuals with specialist knowledge and experience from the worlds of commerce, medicine, the services, the Civil Service, academia, the unions—the list is endless.

I was introduced to your Lordships’ House in 2006. During the first few weeks I listened and observed. I found that I was indeed in the company of men and women of wisdom who had acquired great expertise and valuable experience. It was a pleasure to listen to the debates and I was greatly impressed by the quality of speeches. If there is any element of election, my fear is that a number of existing Members are unlikely to stand and that would be a sad loss.

The enthusiasts for an elected chamber say, “We could retain an appointed element, whether 20 per cent or 50 per cent”. I can think of nothing more destructive of the present harmonious atmosphere in the Lords. Elected Members would be justifiably incensed if the votes of appointed Members happened to determine any issue before the House.

Members of the other place should ponder what would happen if Members of the House of Lords interfered in their constituency affairs on the grounds that they, too, had a mandate. That would be likely to cause irritation.

Some people say that the second chamber should be elected. This is a knee-jerk reaction. Do they realise the expenditure involved? We should ask them whether they want another 500 elected politicians with their secretaries, offices, expenses and salaries and see whether there is the same knee-jerk reaction. In any case, where is the public enthusiasm for more elections? We have trouble persuading people to turn out in large numbers for the present elections.

I am also concerned about the possibility of domination by members of one party in both Houses if that party is popular with the British public. That may interfere with the role of your Lordships’ House, which is to keep a check on the Government.

The House of Lords plays a significant role in the work of Parliament. Its key functions are making laws, holding the Government to account and providing a forum of independent expertise. Our Chamber does not obstruct government legislation; we have the useful power to ask the Commons to think again. An elected Chamber would not be satisfied with that; in time, it would seek to flex its democratic muscle. Your Lordships’ House played a very valuable role when the terrorism Bill and the identity cards Bill were debated, and it keeps a watchful eye on the Government.

Changes to the composition of the House of Lords must protect its crucial function in British democracy. We should concentrate on what would improve your Lordships’ House, not destroy it. First, we should create a statutory Appointments Commission to choose the independent Cross-Bench Peers and to approve those proposed by party leaders, thus avoiding any future cash-for-peerages scandal. Secondly, we should end the ludicrous by-elections for hereditary Peers and transform the existing 92 hereditary Peers into life Peers. The hereditary principle would thus be extinguished.

Those changes would ensure a far preferable House of Lords that complements the House of Commons in its composition and functions. We all agree that there needs to be primacy of the other place. Given that in today’s House of Lords we have something unique, which in practice works very effectively, why sacrifice it because it fails to satisfy a narrow and modish theory of legitimacy?

Updated: 28/08/2009 — 1:20 PM