It is not the most exciting of issues, nor is it likely to be a major priority for voters, yet reform of the House of Lords has been discussed and discarded, championed and challenged for decades. And with the recent publication of a parliamentary report which outlines details of proposed changes to the current system, it has once again cropped up on the agenda of things to discuss in Parliament.
At present, the House of Lords is comprised of nearly 800 peers, none of whom are elected by popular ballot. Under proposals put forward by the report, 80 per cent of peers would be elected by the public, with 20 per cent of peers still appointed, as “a means of preserving expertise and placing its mandate on a different footing from that of the Commons.” The change would also see the number of peers reduced to 450, with peerages held for a non-renewable term of 15 years.
Since 1911 the House of Lords has not been able to truly block government legislation; its legislative power has been greatly reduced over the course of the past century. However it still maintains a significant role in scrutinising and improving legislation, and its composition therefore matters.
One of the central aims of the reform would be to do away with the remaining 92 hereditary peers, individuals who simply ‘become’ peers as a result of their birth right. In a democratic society, the idea that anyone may enter into Parliament purely because their father did so appears as a blot on Britain’s political landscape. The reform would, then, appear to suggest a much fairer system – one in which the public decide who is elected to the House of Lords.
But those in favour of maintaining the status quo point to the depth of experience held by many nominated life peers, who are often drawn from the public, academic and business sectors. The expertise they offer can be invaluable in improving government legislation.
Reformers argue professional experience would still remain an important factor in selecting candidates for election, but the fear is expertise would rank secondary to political allegiance. One of the benefits of the House of Lords is that it is only moderately party political. Unfettered by the constraining squabbles, slander and double-dealing of party politics, the House of Lords is largely free to examine legislation with impartiality.
Changes will, in any case, be slow to come into effect, as reform will depend largely on the potential for a future referendum. Speaking on the Today programme, David Cameron described the case for a referendum as not being “a strong one”, but added that “we shouldn’t rule it out”.
With the failure of the AV referendum a little over a year ago and the prediction that another could cost the government as much as £100m, it is little wonder that Mr Cameron questions its necessity.
Furthermore, given that the British economy is hardly flourishing as it is, one cannot help but reflect that the government would do better to invest more of their time and money in dealing with other areas, rather than in changing what is, although not ideal, an already well-operating system.