There is much justified indignation in the newspapers this morning about yesterday’s announcement of thirty new members of the House of Lords. Yet such indignation is curious when it comes from papers that campaigned vociferously against the government’s proposals for reforming the Lords last year. The new appointments highlight again the fact that the current make-up of our second chamber is indefensible. A gradual process of change to something more credible is badly needed.
The charge sheet against the latest set of appointments is lengthy. First, many of the new peers have donated large sums to the political parties, giving the impression that they have bought their positions in our national legislature. Second, most of the new members have been selected through procedures that are utterly opaque, with no opportunity for direct public scrutiny or involvement. (The one exception is the Green Party’s Jenny Jones, who was elected by her party’s members. She will become the most democratically chosen member in the history of the House of Lords when she takes her seat.) Third, the balance of representation across the parties is basically decided at the whim of the politicians in power. There is a convention that the composition should reflect the votes received by the parties at the last election. But Nigel Farage has a point when he says that the Westminster cabal has united to exclude his party: though UKIP received 3.1 per cent of the votes in 2010, it has only two peers – 0.3 per cent of the partisan members of the House. Fourth, the new appointees will further swell a chamber that everyone already agrees is far too large: as Meg Russell has eloquently shown, the House of Lords just can’t function effectively with approaching 800 active members.
The government proposed a radical reform package in 2011 that would have eliminated most of these problems. But it had to back down amidst a wave of vituperation from almost all corners. The truth is that radical Lords reform is very difficult to achieve. There are legitimate concerns that an elected House of Lords might upset the balance of power among our governing institutions in ways that would prevent effective, accountable government. But, as I have argued before, those concerns are often grossly exaggerated and pay no heed to the evidence. The real reasons for the blockage have more to do with self-interest. The House of Lords is the most ritzy retirement home in the land. Current members do not want to lose their privileges; many other inhabitants of the Westminster village fancy their chances of joining. In addition, MPs in the House of Commons often bridle at the thought of ceding power to a revitalized second chamber.
But if radical reform is always going to be blocked, that does not mean that significant improvements cannot be enacted. Indeed, there is already much support in the House of Lords for mild reforms such as allowing peers to retire.
A retirement plan would help reduce numbers, but wouldn’t go far enough. Fixed-term appointments – say for three parliaments, or around fifteen years – could go much further, allowing a defensible scheme for shaping the overall composition of the Lords to be implemented. A fixed number of new peers could be appointed after each election, in strict proportion to the votes cast at that election. The number of appointments could be set such that, over time, the overall size of the chamber would gradually fall to, say, three to four hundred members.
That would not directly solve the problem of opaque appointment procedures. But a modernization of this kind would create pressure within each party for party members to have a say in who is chosen to fill the party’s seats, pressure that party leaders would find it difficult to resist. Over time, an evolution towards a much more open and accountable system could be expected.
A lesson we should draw from the last century and more of history is that Lords reform always happens slowly. Though radical transformations have been repeatedly blocked, much change has nevertheless taken place. Since the introduction of life peers in 1958, the chamber has evolved from one based largely on heredity to one founded overwhelmingly on (claimed) merit. The removal of most of the hereditary peers in 1999 sealed this shift. Fixed terms and a clear framework for determining numbers would mark a significant further step towards defensibility. And the bottom line is that, even if you support the idea of an unelected second chamber, the current system of closed intra-party deals cannot be tolerated by any reasonable person.