Lord Jim Wallace writes: New Lib Dem colleagues will campaign with me to reform House of Lords

It is desperately disappointing that to many people outside Westminster, the impression that they have of the House of Lords is that espoused by the press over the course of this summer following the reported behaviour of Lord Sewel.

In the days and weeks that have followed, we have seen many claims that Peers abuse their privileged position by not pulling their weight and not taking seriously the role that they are supposed to perform by virtue of their membership of the Lords.

This view is compounded by the fact that no member of the House of Lords has been elected by the general public to be in that position. And each and every one is secure in that membership for life. This is fundamentally wrong.

Regrettably, the good work of our Peers has been overshadowed by a few members of the Lords who, over the years, have shown disregard for their status and responsibility as public servants.

Those who have lost sight of the need to uphold standards of public life only reinforce this unrepresentative view of the House of Lords and brings politics and politicians in general into disrepute.

This does a complete disservice to people in all parties and on the cross-benches who spend hours poring over legislation and campaigning to make this country a better place. Once again the toil and energy ploughed into daily life in the second chamber has failed to make even a footnote.

The Liberal Democrat Peers in the House of Lords are in a hugely privileged position. And we know this. My colleagues work incredibly hard every day to make a difference. Our 100 Peers are performing invaluable work, which ensures there is still a beating Liberal Democrat heart in Westminster.

In the last few months we have stamped our mark and made life difficult for a Tory Government elected by little over 36 per cent of the voting public.

Along with Labour and some cross benchers, the Lib Dems have defeated the Government 10 times since the election. The Tories have been sent packing on issues such as votes for 16 and 17 year olds in local council elections and protecting charitable housing associations from the Government’s right to buy scheme.

We have also made sensible changes to legislation on cities devolution and psychoactive substances. We also successfully supported a cross-bench initiative for a joint Parliamentary committee to examine the government’s I’ll thought-out proposals for English votes for English laws.

However, all of this good work is ultimately undermined because the Lords lacks democratic legitimacy. When a Peer falls below the expected standard of behaviour of a parliamentarian, there is no recourse to the general public.

This is what the public remembers about the House, and they are right – anyone who makes the laws of this country should be accountable to those they expect to obey those laws.

The Liberal Democrats are the only party that has consistently fought for democratic elections to the House of Lords. I am proud to work with colleagues like Paul Tyler who are leading the battle on reform. It is absurd for legislators in modern Britain to be chosen rather than elected.

Some small but worthwhile changes have been proposed, but they merely paper over the cracks. Real reform requires parliamentarians to vote in favour of elections to a democratic second chamber, something Liberal Democrats have long been committed to.

Tim Farron has already written to leaders of all parties in the Commons and Lords – as well as crossbench peers – urging them to back the case for reform.

We are poised for a number of new peerages to be announced, and I am confident that new colleagues will join me in campaigning for legislation to change the second chamber.

Some have argued that, in the absence of elections to the Lords we should not accept any new Peers. This would be absurd. We tried in the last Parliament to change the system and were thwarted by both Labour and the Tories. As with other aspects of the electoral system, we want them changed, but we have no option but to play by the rules – flaws and all.

After all, why would you starve the House of Lords of the very people who can make sure it is reformed once and for all?

* Jim Wallace is leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and was Deputy First Minister of Scotland from 1999-2005.

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22 Comments

  • Doner K. bob 26th Aug '15 - 7:06pm

    The two main parties have already shown they have no desire to reform the Lords so even if the revolution is started from within does anyone really expect the members of the Lords to vote themselves off the gravy train?

  • Mick Taylor 26th Aug '15 - 8:29pm

    What actually counts is votes in the House of Commons to change the mandate of the 2nd chamber. The target must be to get a majority in the House of Commons for that reform. The Lords can’t stop it because under the Parliament Act (passed by a Liberal Government) the Lords can delay but not stop legislation. So Donor K.Bob’s comments are totally fatuous.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Aug '15 - 9:26pm

    Mick Taylor 26th Aug ’15 – 8:29pm Doner K. bob did not say he is a donor, perhaps that was a typo?

  • Richard Underhill 26th Aug '15 - 9:39pm

    i met Jim Wallace when he was the MP on a Liberal International trip to India in 1988. He was a former euro-candidate and has always seemed to me to be a liberal’s liberal, He twice deputised as First Minister in Scotland.
    It was, of course, impossible that Holyrood would have a proportional election system after the Scottish Constitutional Convention, but somehow some very determined Scottish politicians agreed.
    It was, of course, impossible that Scotland would get to elect its local councillors by the Single Transferable Vote, as they do in Northern ireland, but STV has been achieved for the whole of Scotland.
    It was, of course, impossible to reform the House of Lords after Lloyd George’s budget, because it would have needed the support of King Edward VII, but he died and King George V agreed, as historian-politiciam has written.
    On the day that Roy Jenkins took a seat in the Lords he was asked on BBC TV for his opinion. he replied that the existence of the House of Lords was “unacceptable in a democracy”. Roy Jenkins is no longer a life peer, but his thought remains.

    Jim Wallace is not to be confused with another Wallace on our benches in the Lords, who has blogged on another thread, also very liberal.

  • Mick Taylor 26th Aug '15 - 9:59pm

    @ Richard Underhill. Yes a typo but the comments are still fatuous

  • Richard Underhill 26th Aug '15 - 10:22pm

    It was, of course, impossible for there to be further reform of the Lords after the Labour Party’s wrecking of a motion based on their own policy and a rebellion of Tory MPs not in the government, but a bill which David Steel had been pushing for several years was eventually passed.
    It was said that peers would not retire, impossible unless they were paid off, but David Steel’s bill became an Act of Parliament and a small number have volunteered ti give up their peerages and retire.
    Labour’s manifesto promise of 1997 has been achieved in a compromised way. David Steel wanted to abolish the farcical by-elections in the Lords, which has not, yet, been achieved.
    It is, of course, impossible that further change will happen. that is common sense, is it not?

  • Jane Ann Liston 26th Aug '15 - 11:56pm

    Lord Wallace (not Lord Jim Wallace, please) rightly draws attention to the hard work carried out by the Lords. I found it very disappointing that recent Press coverage seemed to equate their work purely with speaking in the Chamber, almost deliberately misunderstanding that when one member speaks, you need others to listen, and completely ignoring the behind-the-scenes committee work. Despite gibes about ermine, there is none to be seen, except for the State opening and when a new member takes their seat. I am very fond of the G& S operetta ‘Iolanthe’ with its comic portrayal of the Upper House, resplendent in magnificent coronets, tights and velvet cloaks (in reality reserved for Coronations) but am fully aware that the real-life House of Lords is not a theatrical performance put on for the benefit of the Press gallery, nor is it a debating competition-cum-reality TV show where points are awarded for eloquence, sophistry and superficiality.

  • What a joke trying to defend the existence of an undemocratic unelected House of Lords, that has among its numbers many convicted criminals in it. This place that the SNP and the people of Scotland do not recognise and has no legitimacy still has the bare faced cheek to stick their nose into the business of the people of Scotland. The Tories are going to parachute in another batch of undemocratic unelected Lords, no doubt followed by a batch of Lib Dem undemocratic unelected Lords, meanwhile SNP and Labour are against the old boys private members club. How can anybody defend this set up where these people are turning up to a club that has subsidised bars, restaurants and we are paying for them so it don’t even cost them a bean . Some of the members of the club don’t even to turn up and the club still pays them they are getting their corn by the barrow load and they are loving it.

  • John Tilley 27th Aug '15 - 7:19am

    Richard Underhill, some interesting notes on Jim Wallace. You missed out that it was his birthday on Tuesday. 🙂

    For followers of astrology Jim Wallace has exactly the same birthday as Elvis Costello — they are both 61.
    They also share the date with Sean Connery who is 85.

    Happy Birthday Jim, Elvis and Sir Sean !

  • I am well aware of the hard work, dedication and political commitment of many Lib Dems operating within what Jim Wallace accurately describes as a “hugely privileged” position in the Lords but that in itself does not justify the undermining of our credibility in the country with our share of new peers in the Dissolution Honours. Like electoral reform, House of Lords reform requires a broadly based campaign inside and outside of political parties beyond either House at Westminster. We should be pushing the Labour Party to put its cards on the table at the earliest opportunity.

  • Reflecting on Jim’s article and where the LibDem’s are, it is obvious to me that the biggest contribution the Libdem peers can make is to help keep the HoL relevant and keep the work it is doing in the public eye. Regardless of how it gains members, we need an effective second chamber that can demonstrate that it isn’t ‘controlled’ by business and/or party interests and is working in the long-term interests of UK citizens.

  • Helen Dudden 27th Aug '15 - 11:43am

    At one stage, its get rid of the HOL on political status, its wrong. Where are those who serve humanity? A gravy train, like the EU, long overdue for change.

    Politics should be cost effective, and efficient.

  • Agreed, we accept Peerages. However, once in the Lords the primary role of Lib Dem Peers should be to work for the end of that appalling and undemocratic chamber. Where does it leave us as Liberals if we put the survival of such an institution ahead of representative democracy? After this long, reform, with elections gracefully handed out by these would be aristocrats, is neither viable nor acceptable. We either need to close the Lords down and replace it with a fully democratic and modern second chamber or opt for a single chamber system.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Aug '15 - 1:45pm

    “Labour’s manifesto promise of 1997 has been achieved in a compromised way. ”
    There was probably more to this than pleasing some of Labour’s left-wingers in their manifesto for 1997.
    The Salisbury Convention provided that the House of Lords would not oppose a policy which was in the the manifesto of the governing party. In 1997 Labour had a large overall majority in the Commons with support on some issues from us, as led by Paddy Ashdown. The effect was like a game of poker with some cards concealed and an element of bluff. Tory leader William Hague sacked his leader in the Lords for talking to Downing Street without his knowledge and approval (but if one is a Cecil one has being doing that for several hundred years).
    Could the majority in the Commons wait for more than the two years provided by the Parliament Act 1911?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliament_Act_1911
    Would there be public outrage if the Lords blocked the government’s entire agenda?
    Would the Lords try to argue that the Parliament Act 1949 was illegitimate?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliament_Act_1949
    Labour’s then leader in the Lords asserted that they would finish the job and remove all the hereditary peers. There was always doubt as to whether she could achiebe this, however sincere she was, unless she had the active support of the prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Aug '15 - 2:11pm

    We should give Tony Blair some allowance in having other things to do at the time. A bizarre but frequent issue is that refreshing the membership of the House of Commons also delayed further reform of the Upper House as a legislature.
    We must also be careful about anachronism. When quoting legal judgements there is a risk of confusing what is now the Supreme Court with the former Law Lords. The powers and initial membership were the same. The name changed and the Supreme court uses a different building.
    In “A Journey” he refers to “the gene pool” of talent in Parliament from which he could appoint ministers. Ideally, in a democracy, ministers should be currently elected to Parliament. Despite the size of Labour’s majorities in the Commons over three general elections there seemed to be a lack of suitable talent in the Labour Party.
    This lack of talent caused Tony Blair to aspire to a coalition with us after 1997, or a merger, according to Paddy Ashdown and not denied by Tony Blair.
    It seems reasonable to accept that Conservatives and conservatives in the House of Lords (legislature) might have wanted to prevent devolution to Scotland and the creation of the Holyrood parliament, forestalled by a referendum on the principle before detailed legislation.

  • Helen Dudden 27th Aug '15 - 2:16pm

    Fascist is not a word I like. Brings bad thoughts to mind, like anti Semitic. Soon will be Shabbat again, I say no more.

    We all have to tighten our belts, so should those in politics it still is tax payer funded.

    Moderator’s note from Paul Walter: This comment was made in response to a remark which has now been removed because it contravened our comments policy. I apologise to Helen Dudden that the comment temporarily slipped through our net.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Aug '15 - 2:16pm

    An effect of first-past-the-post in Scotland in 2015 is to further reduce the “gene pool” of talent in the Labour Party in the Commons. The loss of their Shadow Chancellor in England and a divisive leadership election reduces it further, making it less likely that the Labour Party can provide an effective opposition to the current government.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Aug '15 - 2:18pm

    John Tilley 27th Aug ’15 – 12:37pm
    Reform of the Eurpeasn Parliament has also been gradual. Comapre for instance the number of MEPs for Malta and Luxembourg. This needs a separate thread.

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