Reforming their Lordships and Ladyships

Many commentators think it inevitable that the House of Lords will be reformed. The present mix–part hereditary and elected by their peers, and part appointed and chosen by the government–is difficult to justify in principle, and has failings that are all too evident in practice.

Some of the activities and powers of the Lords have been restrained by convention rather than by law. The famous Salisbury Convention, by which the Lords will not impede laws that were in the manifesto on which the government was elected, is not legally binding; it is only a convention. Recent years have shown that convention is a poor restraint on political expediency.

Convention decreed that the Parliament Act that could shorten the delaying power of the Upper House to one year rather than three, was limited to matters of vital national security. That was what was promised in the chamber when it was enacted. Yet it was used by the Blair government to push through the ban on fox-hunting–hardly the most vital of national security issues.

The unelected Lords have voted for measures designed to thwart Brexit or to render it meaningless, despite the clear majority it enjoyed in the largest vote ever seen in the UK, and the government’s manifesto promise to deliver it.

Opinions differ over the type of reform needed. Many oppose an elected Second Chamber because it would divide along party lines. It would have an electoral mandate to challenge the Lower House, and would make it nigh on impossible for talented achievers in different fields to sit there, depriving the country of the vital role they play in scrutinizing forthcoming legislation.

Instead of the total overhaul that such a step would demand, it might be preferable to tweak the present arrangement to reduce or remove its failings. Some have proposed either a compulsory retirement age, or a limit to the number of years for which a member might sit.  

It would make sense to separate the legislative power from the honour bestowed, by separating life peers into those who sat to legislate, and those who received the title as a personal honour for achievement but did not sit in the chamber.

Perhaps the most sensible reform would be to change the legislative powers into advisory ones, so that instead of passing amendments to bills, the Lords would pass recommendations for the Lower House to consider. The expertise of its talented achievers would not thus be lost, while the problem of unelected authority which could overrule elected authority would be resolved.

By their recent actions the Lords have brought forward the need to redress some of the anomalies that presently characterize it. The aim of the reforms should be to preserve the good presently done by the Upper House, while removing some of the abuses it currently allows.