Reform of the House of Lords

It was on March 19th, 1649, the House of Lords was abolished by Act of Parliament. The Act declared “that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England.” It further declared:

“that from henceforth the House of Lords in Parliament shall be and is hereby wholly abolished and taken away; and that the Lords shall not from henceforth meet or sit in the said House called the Lords' House, or in any other house or place whatsoever.”

The Upper House was later replaced by a new body to have 40 – 70 members nominated by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. He was some ‘protector,’ in that at one stage he closed down the Lower House as well. Telling them, “You are no Parliament,” he brought in soldiers to drag the Speaker from his chair and shut the place down. He described the mace, the symbol of Parliamentary power, as “a fool’s bauble,” and ordered it taken away.

The abolition of the Lords did not obtain the consent of either Lords or the King and so it was not recognized as a valid law when King Charles II was returned at the Restoration. Parliament, with a hypocrisy it has not lost, later erected a statue outside of the only man who ever closed it down.

Many observers say that the current House of Lords is unwieldy. When 45 peers were added in the 2015 Dissolution Honours, its eligible members numbered 826. This compares with the US Senate of 100, France’s 348 senators, Australia’s 76, and India’s 250. It even exceeds North Korea’s 687, though it is smaller than the 2,987 of the Chinese National People's Congress.

A problem arose with the 1999 reform, which was supposed to be an interim measure. It reduced the hereditary element to 92, with each vacancy now filled by an election by the remaining 91. Life peers, making up the remainder, are a mixed bag. For every Lord Winston, the fertility studies expert who brings vast knowledge and insight to the Upper Chamber, there are less deserving ex-cabinet members like Lord Deben who contribute little or nothing. There are numbers of Labour peers who were “pushed upstairs” as MPs to vacate safe Parliamentary seats wanted by aspiring Labour apparatchiks. The quality is patchy, to say the least.

Some urge an elected Upper House, but this is resisted by the Commons because it would give the Lords the sense of a mandate with which to oppose and overturn the will of the Commons. A wholly appointed House is thought to offer too much power to the Prime Minister, while an ‘independent’ quango to recommend such appointments would be prone to political capture. The Upper House continues to survive in its present ‘temporary’ form because no-one can agree on what might improve it.

One reform might be to convey lordships to some, with only the honour and title, and without the right to sit and legislate. That could be reserved for a smaller number who would be appointed with a scrutiny and revision brief that is the essential and useful function of the House. But abolition would be a mistake, taking away some of the restraint that curbs the excessive use of power by the Lower House.