10 May 2018

Following the Government’s defeats on Brexit in the House of Lords, Iain Duncan Smith and others have called for reform of the upper house. Why only now, asks Dr Catherine Haddon.

A clash between the Government and the House of Lords over Brexit has been long-expected. Neither can be surprised about where they are now. However, frustrations with the amendments on the EU Withdrawal bill going through in the Lords and the implications for its return to the Commons have again brought out calls for the second chamber to be reformed.

These arguments will generate headlines, but it is less likely that they actually lead to proper reform of the House. One only has to look at the recent history of the Conservative and Coalition governments to see how they have repeatedly ducked the issue. Few think that the Lords does not need reform. It is heavily over-populated, but both David Cameron and Theresa May – to varying degrees – sought to put in more Conservative peers rather than tackle full-on reform.

Conservatives have blocked reform

In 2012, it was Conservative MPs who brought down the most serious attempt at reform in recent years under the Coalition government when they rebelled against the Nick Clegg-led initiative. In 2015 there were again Conservative calls for reform after Cameron’s post-coalition government was defeated by the Lords on tax credits. But that review ended up being focused on a specific issue of how the Lords dealt with secondary legislation. It again failed to tackle the far more important issues of size and make-up.

Last year, peers themselves gave Theresa May’s government the opportunity to commit to reform. Lord Burns review provided a non-legislative means for reform in an attempt to avoid the disputed issues that keep undermining legislative agreement. May pledged to keep appointments to a minimum and has so far not tried to pack the Lords with extra Conservative peers as heavily as Cameron did, but with Brexit to deliver in the context of the loss of her majority in the Commons, fully committing to reform was again a bridge too far.

Discovering now that the House of Lords requires ‘root and branch’ reform is disingenuous

The ever-increasing size of the Lords is becoming a risk to its effectiveness and credibility. But this has been evident for years. Successive governments – both Labour and Conservative – have failed on the issue of what to do with the Lords. Discovering now that it requires ‘root and branch’ reform is disingenuous. We should not be surprised that the Lords is choosing to play a role in the biggest piece of legislation the country has faced in many decades, and the country needs a healthy and productive second chamber. Certainly it is too large, some of its procedures are idiosyncratic and, in the case of Brexit, its role is contested, but if the Government and Conservative MPs suddenly feel the flaws in the Lords are too much to bear, they have only themselves to blame.


It may be easy to get people to agree that reform of the House of Lords is needed. The difficulty is getting any kind of agreement on what a reformed second chamber to replace it should look like. If we were to run a referendum on 'should the House of Lords be reformed?', we could find it followed by years of people complaining, 'yes, but I never agreed to this new system'. There are simply too many different arrangements (one chamber or two? election process for members? continued supremacy of the Commons? New powers, such as ditching the Salisbury convention or repeal of the single session blocking power, for a democratically elected chamber?) for anyone to build reform on simple agreement that reform is needed.

Some years ago, Australian plans to move to a republic foundered on people not liking being told what the replacement arrangements would be. Current popular debates on whether voting out in 2016 was a vote for 'leave the EU but not the customs union' or 'leave the EU and all its works' demonstrate the problem too.

But good luck with trying to generate a national debate on the subject, let alone building a national consensus.

I was saddened that the last serious discussion of Lords reform did not appear to want to address the question of the function of an upper house in the UK. Maybe you could start with a discussion paper on what the purpose of an upper house should be to inform any debate about the powers it needs to have to achieve that purpose and what form it should take to be able to exercise those powers in a legitimate manner.

Surely any debate on the composition of a second chamber should follow, not precede, the determination of its purpose? Has anyone ever seriously argued that the legislatures at Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont are impaired by being unicameral? Is there any evidence that their legislative performance compares unfavourably with that of Westminster? If the function of the second chamber is primarily to provide some protection against the shortcomings of the first, would it not make more sense to identify and rectify these at source? In countries with a federal constitution, there may be a role for a second chamber in protecting the interests of the constituent states. But what value does bicameralism add in a unitary state such as Britain?

One of the problems with UK politics at the moment is its chronic short-termism. brilliant reforms by one government are reversed after a general election, and perhaps an equally good (or bad) reform started off. While this is good politics, it is lousy management, with the people who have to institute the reforms (e.g. doctors or teachers,) having to waste huge amounts of time learning the new system, and a whole lot of extra costs as offices are moved and organisation re-branded. A second chamber with a remit to reduce these wasteful changes would be a great advantage.

Politicians have also had a complete blind-spot about very long term problems that need dealing with, such as climate change. Most of the problems of the causes of climate change, and the probable effects were known over 50 years ago, and yet so far, for all the self congratulation, Westminster has done practically nothing about it. Thousands of deaths of UK voters have been attributed to some aspect of climate change every year for a decade or more. The Lords could take a practical long term view of climate change, and similar phenomena.

As the NHS has been taking advantage of new ways to cure people, r to prevent illness for 70 years, it should have come as no surprise that the population is getting older, and yet the Commons have not even been able to design a robust or effective pension system. Again the House of Lords could be used to help on this issue.

Every farmer would agree that the UK Agricultural system is in terminal decline. Decades of cheap food policies and subsidies that do not cover the difference between production costs and the prices that farmers receive from the markets, have closed two thirds of British Farms since I trained in the early 1970s. At the same time the RSPB have recorded a decline of 60% in the population of farmland birds. The strain is even beginning to effect the supply food processing chain that has done so much to bankrupt farmers, and the Horse meat scandal illustrates this brilliantly. While UK supermarkets demanded Burgers at a price that could only be supplied by using horse meat, they also apparently sold more Manuka Honey in the UK than could be grown worldwide. Cheap food is nearly as good a way for MPs to win elections as are ridiculously inadequate rates of taxation. Agriculture and Food policy needs to be taken out of the hands of the Commons and placed in the hands of people who can afford to take a long term view.

There are of course many other important aspects of life which do not fit into the frenetic pace of an MPs life.

So if the Lords is to take on long term projects as well as continuing as a revising chamber then it makes sense that if elected, Lords terms of office should be 2 or 3 times as long as MPs. In order to ensure continuity, perhaps only one third of the Lords should come up for re-election every 4 years. In this case perhaps Lords would hold elections every 4 years to match the Commons, but each Lord should be elected for 12 years, and to avoid overcrowding be made to retire after their second term - 24 years after first election. (That might cause problems with career planning, and how much time they have to spend job-hunting in their last years) - so more thought needed!)

One of the benefits of the Lords as presently constituted is the tremendous experience they bring to the job. If that is valued (and it should be) then I would suggest that perhaps instead of being elected from geographic constituencies they might be elected from professional/occupational / or industrial constituencies. Again getting that to work might take a huge leap of political imagination, but might be worth considering even so. Apart from the breadth of experience gained from organising elections on non-geographic constituencies, it takes the Lords out of direct competition with the Commons, and avoids dilution of campaigning effort in constituencies. It might even reduce the influence of party politics, making the revising function of the Lords seem both robust and fair. (Though lobbying of sector representatives would need close watching.)

All this is "out of the box", but may illustrate some possible solutions, to issues that others have raised in comments above. Many may dismiss them straight away, but at least they will have been considered. Hopefully, better solutions will arise from discussions about these weird ideas!

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