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28 October 2015

Leader: the House of Lords requires urgent reform

The peers' welcome intervention in tax credits cannot disguise that the Lords is an anachronism.

By New Statesman

Millions of households this week have reason to be grateful for the House of Lords. Its rejection of the government’s £4bn cuts to tax credits, which would have cost three million households as much as £1,300 a year, has intensified pressure on George Osborne to reconsider a plan that would have punished the working poor. The action of the Lords has reinforced the importance of having a second chamber that can amend and delay legislation as well as hold the executive to account.

Yet the peers’ intervention on tax credits cannot disguise that the Lords is an anachronism: it is Europe’s only upper house with no openly elected members. Nor should an unelected chamber have the power to decide on matters of finance and taxation. “The principle of no taxation without representation is fundamental to our parliamentary system,” the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor wrote this week.

The Parliament Act 1911 was introduced to prevent the Lords (then stuffed full of hereditary peers) from overturning government, as happened in 1909 with the rejection of David Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget”. It was the resistance of the Lords, too, that prevented William Gladstone from introducing home rule for Ireland in the late 19th century. Had he succeeded, Ireland might never have left the UK.

Today, with 816 members, the Lords is the largest parliamentary chamber in any democracy. It has no term limits, no retirement age and not even a cap on how many members it can have at any one time. As governments expand the upper house with their own appointments, the Lords becomes ever more bloated: the number of peers has risen by 147 in the past 15 years. While one accepts that there is genuine expertise from beyond politics in the Lords, too often peerages are given to time-serving former MPs or other political appointees.

The Lords costs taxpayers £87m a year, which could be reduced by cutting the number who sit in the upper house. A few peers exploit the generosity of the daily allowance of £300, plus travel expenses, that can be claimed whenever they turn up at the House. Between 2010 and 2015, £360,000 in attendance fees and expenses was claimed by peers in years they failed to vote even once.

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At a time when the governing party was elected by only 24 per cent of eligible voters, the House of Lords provides a crucial check on executive power. Yet the chamber is not representative of the wider British population. Just 24 per cent of peers are female and less than 7 per cent are from ethnic minorities. And it can be easily manipulated. Smarting from its defeat, the government has suggested that it might create 100 or more Tory peers to secure a majority in the upper house. That would be a democratic outrage.

Reform of the second chamber is long overdue. When the House of Lords Act 1999 limited the participation of hereditary peers to 92 members, it was envisaged as a first step in democratising parliament, not an end in itself. But 92 hereditary peers still sit in the chamber. (Lord Strathclyde, who will be leading a review of the upper chamber, is himself a hereditary peer.) Our preference is for the Lords to be abolished or radically reformed as part of a far-ranging programme that would result in the creation of a fully federal United Kingdom.

The welcome resistance of peers of all parties to the Chancellor’s egregious plans to reduce tax credits should not disguise that the UK’s upper house remains an undemocratic club. Perhaps anger at the role of the Lords in opposing their plans to reduce tax credits might convince even the Tories of the urgency and necessity of progressive reform.

The right surges in Poland

European electorates are specialising in delivering the instability that EU leaders so long to avoid. The triumph of the right-populist Law and Justice Party in Poland is the latest instance of voters’ revolt against the mainstream. After winning an overall majority, the party has a mandate for its programme of Euroscepticism, tighter borders and higher social spending.

The prime minister-designate, Beata Szydło, may refuse to accept the 7,000 Syrian refugees whom Poland is due to receive under the EU’s relocation scheme, allying with the chauvinistic Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán. For David Cameron, the result also bodes ill. The Conservatives sit with the Law and Justice Party in the European Parliament, rather than with the more mainstream, centre-right European People’s Party grouping, but Mr Cameron’s pledge to impose a four-year ban on benefits for migrants (which would penalise the 700,000 Poles in the UK) will be fiercely resisted. To avoid defeat – every EU member state possesses a veto – he will need to court Poland far more assiduously than before.

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This article appears in the 28 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?