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18 December 2015

The Lords need reform – not a power grab by the government

George Osborne identified the problem - but the government hasn't provided the solution, says Katie Ghose.

By Katie Ghose

On the last day of Parliament in 2015, Lord Strathclyde has published his review into ‘reform’ of the House of Lords, following the government’s defeat on cutting tax credits in October. The Lords had performed a rare veto on a piece of secondary legislation that concerned finance – and Thursday marks another stage in what has been a surprisingly constitution-focused Parliament so far. 

In response to its tax credits defeat, the government rushed to hereditary Conservative peer Lord Strathclyde who came up with three options:

Proposal 1: scrap the ability of Lords to veto statutory instruments. Proposal 2: to force the Lords ‘to revert to a position where the veto is left unused’. Proposal 3: scrap the veto but allow Peers one-shot at referring this type of law back to the Commons. Strathclyde has opted to back the latter.

What this review is about is an attempt to tame the Lords: after all, scrapping peers’ veto over secondary legislation was rarely mentioned before the Lords voted against tax credit cuts, yet suddenly it is all the rage. But only full-blown reform to tackle the size (now standing at over 830 members) and illegitimacy of the second chamber actually gets to the root of its problems.

The public are looking for a different kind of new settlement. Polling in October showed that just one in ten people think the Lords should remain completely unelected. There is overwhelming cross-party support for reform among the public. People want a smaller, more effective, more efficient, and crucially, elected House of Lords.

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The irony is that George Osborne already identified the nature of the upper chamber – “unelected Labour and Liberal Democrat Lords” – as the heart of problem. But Strathclyde was given no remit to look at the bigger picture.

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It looks likely or indeed inevitable that the government will accept Lord Strathclyde’s recommendations. But if and when they do, they will be scrambling in response to the politics of the day, rather than implementing real, lasting and democratic changes. It’s a huge missed opportunity given that the Tories officially support some kind of elected Lords.

It’s not too late to grab the chance, though. Lord Strathclyde’s proposal would require primary legislation, which will be a real challenge to get through Parliament – expect considerable “ping-pong” between the two houses. It begs the question: if the government is planning to go to the trouble of passing a controversial and difficult law to reform the Lords, they could do worse than to stick to their official party policy and pass the one reform people really want – an elected second chamber. 

The problems of the Lords are clear. Like, for instance, the fact that in the 2010-2015 parliament, £360,000 was claimed by Peers in years they failed to vote once, or that they can claim £300 tax-free per day without having to prove they’ve done any work. Or that it is the second largest chamber in the world (after China), and the only fully-unelected chamber in Europe.

The upper chamber is a democratic oddity in the 21st century.  It has more members who used to work in the Royal Household than from manual labour backgrounds, while the average age is 70, the majority live in London or the South East. And it is hugely unrepresentative of ethnicity, gender or modern working life. It is, frankly, beyond tinkering.

So instead of rushing to put out fires, the Government needs to look at the issue of Lords reform in the round. To have a truly effective revising chamber it needs to have a mandate, and that’s something that can only come through people being able to hold Peers to account.

A “headless chicken” approach to Lords reform won’t work. We need to see genuine democratic reform of this bloated and out-of-date chamber: we’ve already waited far too long.

Now, there is a small window of opportunity. It would be a huge shame if it was squandered on constitutional gerrymandering.