What’s to be done with the House of Lords?

Two recent events have brought back into prominence that hardy perennial House of Lords Reform. The first event was former prime Minister David Cameron’s disastrous Resignation Honours List. The second event was the vocal threat by Baroness (Patience) Wheatcroft that she and a claque of similarly-ignorant peers would seek to block Britain’s forthcoming Brexit and do so from the (unelected) House of Lords.

Because of all that the new prime minister Theresa May has been obliged to raise the priority of House of Lords Reform, as if she hasn’t got enough on her plate already. So as a helping hand, here are the seven basic principles for her and her advisers to consider:

1. We always need a Second Chamber to keep tabs on the first.

2. The British people should have the last say who sits in it. Ten Downing Street should have nothing to do with choosing virtually all its members.

3. Its members should each only ever be elected once, so they are not constantly buttering up their voters seeking to get re-elected. They have independence of mind. Bruce Tulloch examined that distorted motivation in an Institute of Economic Affairs pamphlet published decades ago. He called the problem “The Vote Motive”.

4. Currently the Lords has far too many members. As with all legislatures 250 is ideal, 400 should be tops. The current 797 is utterly ridiculous.

5. It must not become a political clone of the House of Commons.

6. Its members should possess a worthy level of experience and expertise and be expected to lead the House on their specialist areas. In the process they should expose the House of Commons for what it is: far too many bumbling over-opinionated ignoramuses who succeed only in bringing the whole of politics into disrepute.

7. The major political parties should have as little as possible to do with its membership.

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None of those seven points is even remotely original. I first heard them in 1974 at a formal Chambers of Commerce gathering, almost half a century ago. They were expounded by a very clever, original-minded accountant from Birmingham called Bruce Sutherland. 

Bruce held the interesting distinction of being chairman of both the Chambers of Commerce and also the CBI Taxation committees - the only person to straddle both. In passing one might fairly observe that Patience Wheatcroft was working in the same building at the same time as a junior journalist of the London Chamber of Commerce's monthly magazine.

So now let’s move on from that, adding in a few tweaks of my own. The most important question, as always, is how anyone gets on a ballot paper, especially for the House of Lord. All too often, it’s simply a shoo-in after that anyway. Ten Downing Street often prefers, or rather in the pre-crony era used to prefer, experts in their own particular field, and not mere sycophants. I quite like that previous idea as well, so let’s stick with it.

8. So if we want clever surgeons or clever architects to become candidates for the Lords (they are not yet members, of course) then let the Royal College of Surgeons, or the Royal Institute of British Architects choose them from among their own number. They, better than anyone, know who would be the most suitable.

Let all the royal-somethings get a shout, plus bodies such as the Chambers of Commerce, the CBI, the legal profession, the military, the churches, the TUC and indeed the Commons and the Civil Service itself. Indeed that could well give the Palace something to think about as well. If a few eccentric-somethings get on the list it hardly matters because none of them will go any further.

In effect, the process of selecting future members of the House of Lords has been Privatised.

9. And at that point we could also re-admit all the hereditary peers to the process as well. Some of them are very clever, almost more clever than parliament deserves.  Ralph Percy, aged 59, Duke of Northumberland, does an excellent job with all his highly-skilled farming mates. He lives in Alnwick Castle and all around him are the arable farms of his tenants.

Northumberland is very rich and I wager most of his tenant farmers are millionaires too. They run their farms on a very large scale, essentially organising a know-how co-operative. Not a fool among them; Ralph Percy would never allow that.

The late Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, was one of the world’s most expert - and philanthropic - property developers.  I would have a man like that as my Member in the Lords any day of the week.  Some of the world’s finest inner suburbs of Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico were mainly the Westminster’s own work.  It was the farming family of the Grosvenors who spotted the potential of their lands and turned themselves into Britain’s richest Dukedom in the process.

Therefore we need about eighty constituencies, substantially more than there are states in the USA. In a sense it is an extension of the way each American state has a Senior and Junior Senator, and I consider that a wise principle we ought to adopt over here; it would make for admirable continuity.