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?

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