(This post was first published by Platform Ten on 12 May 2011.)
Reform of the upper chamber is a Conservative policy as much as a Liberal Democrat policy. Reform was mentioned in the 2005 Conservative manifesto, and suggestions outlined in a 2008 White Paper long before the Coalition agreement was drafted.
The legitimacy of Parliament as a whole rests on it being representative of the people and serving the people. This lies uneasily with an upper chamber comprised of peers appointed on the basis of parentage, party-political usefulness, wealth or personal friendship. There is no place for a wholly unelected House of Lords in British politics.
Changing the House of Lords is a Conservative action because it is part of a slow evolution. The relationship between the two Houses has been changing in small ways for the majority of the 20th century – in 1900 Lord Salisbury was Prime Minister, yet by the time of Sir Alex Douglas-Home it was unthinkable that a peer take Number 10, and today the circumstances by which he became Prime Minister are inconceivable. Now is the right time for further change to the House of Lords.
The question of whether the upper chamber should be wholly elected or partly appointed rests on the characteristics and purposes of both Houses. If the House of Commons asks “what must be done?” then the House of Lords asks “how can we do it”, thus fulfilling the roles of proof-reader, scrutiniser and editor. A hybrid House with a small appointed component would relish this role and create a workable upper chamber, while an entirely appointed Senate could threaten the balance of Parliament.
A cross-bench group within a mainly elected chamber would benefit Parliament as a whole – the appointed cross-bench peers would bring expertise, broaden representation and strengthen independence. While it’s certainly not the case that elected peers would necessarily lack these skills, appointment enables individuals to be chosen specifically for such qualities.
Expertise, experience and representation are vital for a chamber of scrutiny. Appointing someone who has expertise in, for example, disabilities policy, can ensure that these issues are properly covered during debates. The nature of expertise is often oversimplified or rejected by those who wish to see a completely elected House of Lords. Unlock Democracy have suggested that experts should be invited in to consider specific bills, with the general argument often being that expertise is a narrow field. The counter argument is that expertise in one field requires an intellectual curiosity and determination which is invaluable in other subjects. Furthermore, few subjects stand completely alone, and while an expert in physics may not have the same level of expertise in education, such scientific knowledge can be applied to many areas of debate.
Cross-bench peers serving long terms can be independent of political advancement in a way that party-political members of the Commons are not. Some individuals with much to contribute will not feel able to join political parties – such as those who gave their service to the country in military or civil service, or those who lead faith groups. Elected representatives receive legitimacy through the democratic process, while appointed peers receive legitimacy because of past successes in the community or in their professions, or in a long career in the civil service.
If members of the upper chamber have no constituency pressures comparable to those of the lower house, they will not champion particular policies in the same way. They have the space to carefully consider legislation solely on its own merits. Peers, it could be argued, could come closest to perfect law-makers; while knowledge of a subject is valuable, self-interest is dangerous.
In 2008 the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties broadly agreed with the Labour Government’s white paper suggestions for reform. The differences, such as they are, lie in the details. While all parties support elections by thirds (much like many two-tier and all metropolitan districts) Labour and the Conservatives favour combining these with general elections, while the Liberal Democrats suggest the 2011 devolved national cycle. The Conservatives proposed elections held by first past the post in 80 new constituencies comprising the counties and cities. (An interesting suggestion, as it prioritises the community boundaries which the House of Commons constituencies will be moving away from. It’s also worth noting that elections are run by districts rather than counties.) Liberal Democrats prefer a single transferable vote in 24 roughly equally-sized constituencies. While Labour and the Liberal Democrats suggested a total between 400 and 450 electors, the Conservatives recommended a smaller chamber of 250 to 300.
Labour promised to reform the House of Lords, and while they did much to demonstrate the need to do so, they ultimately failed. This is an opportunity to prove that this Coalition Government is progressive and keen to support the right changes. If the Government waits, it will be guilty of adding yet another link to the messy business that Professor Philip Cowley called “a compromise followed by a hapless white paper followed by a U-turn followed by a farce followed by another U-turn”.
The Coalition Government is right to be pressing forward with this issue. The House of Lords can act as a veil of ignorance, but it needs careful reform to ensure that it contains enough independence, expertise, representation and legitimacy.