Lords reform: 100 years in the making, another 50 to go?

One of the major achievements in the Coalition Agreement is the commitment of the Conservatives to support not merely a “wholly or mainly” elected Upper House but also one elected by proportional representation no less.

The timetable has started to slip, from the original agreement’s decision to “come forward with a draft motions by December 2010” to talk about draft legislation in January and then, slipped in near the end of Nick Clegg’s conference speech, the intention that the first elections will not be held until the latest possible moment while still keeping the commitment to act in this Parliament – 2015.

If you accept that elections in 2015 is good enough (and it’s a date not without its problems) then the slippage from December to January is but a minor detail as it doesn’t suggest any reason why 2015 cannot still be met. With fixed-term Parliaments, boundary changes and the AV referendum still to get through Parliament, it is understandable why priorities have been elsewhere, leaving Upper House reform plans to slip a little.

House of Lords. Photo: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of ParliamentMuch more worrying is the chatter about letting the currently unelected members of the Lords retain their places, in large numbers and for their own lifetimes. The Coalition Agreement has an opaque reference to it being “likely there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers”; i.e. letting some, many or all retain their places even after elections are introduced.

A modest degree of grandfathering makes sense, for reasons such as to have some continuity of knowledge about how Parliament works, but there are high hopes in some quarters that for “modest” read “very large numbers”.

The divide in Westminster is not so much across the political spectrum as between peers of all parties and everyone else. Among Labour, Conservative and (to a much lesser, but not trivial, degree) Lib Dem peers, there is a rearguard hope that even if elections really must be introduced for their house, the combination of allowing some unelected posts and generous grandfathering will keep elections largely at bay.

A small but telling example of the way peers manage to argue successfully for special provisions for themselves is the provision as to who can vote in May’s referendum on the alternative vote for the House of Commons. The legislation before Parliament grants a vote in the referendum to people who can vote in elections to the House of Commons – with one, and only one, addition: peers. They don’t get to vote for the House of Commons but they are due to get a vote to decide the electoral system used for the House of Commons.

Complicating the question of Lords reform is the need to reduce the size of the Lords – currently 738, larger than the Commons and far larger than the planned 600 MPs. Unless significant numbers of unelected peers are removed from office, the size of the Lords will balloon or the elected proportion will be tiny. If Lords reform also includes proper salaries and support staff for full-time elected Parliamentarians to do their work, there will also be strong pressures to keep the costs down by having an Upper House that is no larger than the Commons.

One way to resolve this is the idea floated over the summer and reported by The Times that appointed peers get to vote amongst themselves to select a smaller number who are allowed to continue in post until they die. As with the similar arrangements when hereditary peers were abolished, it has the advantage of making it harder for peers to oppose the legislation (and perish the thought that far more think they are bound to be elected to remain by their colleagues than there are slots to fill…).

The big disadvantage is that if some group of appointed peers get to retain their seats for their own lifetime then, even allowing for the higher than average age amongst the Upper House, that means some will be still there for 50 years.

Both Tom McNally and Ed Miliband have made conference speeches this year pointing out that 100 years is more than long enough to wait for Lords reform to be finished. They’re both right – and letting interim measures hang on for another 50 years would be wrong.

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  • Anthony Aloysius St 6th Oct '10 - 9:37am

    It’s difficult to see why “grandfathering” should be necessary at all, considering that large numbers of those currently in the House would no doubt wish to stand for election, and no doubt be elected.

  • Ben Johnson 6th Oct '10 - 10:27am

    A model similar to that used to abolish the majority of hereditary peers should work fine.

    Get rid of the majority of them and leave a small number elected internally. The remainder can then be elected by the general public.

    We mustn’t delay on this.

  • If there is a single unelected member still in the House of Lords after 2015 then I will be disgusted and, in my eyes, the coalition will have failed on this issue. The notion of “grandfathering” sounds like a lot of nonsense to me, typical politico procrastination.

    I have never understood why we need a second chamber at all – talk of providing checks and balances on the Commons merely suggests to me that the fault lies in the latter and that it should be reformed so that these ‘checks and balances’ are built into its own procedures. Consequently, I would completely abolish the House of Lords (both improving democracy and saving a large sum of money at the same time) and reform the House of Commons by making it elected by true proportional representation and by strengthening the select committees so that they have greater power to scrutinise legislation and to call upon the services of outside experts to provide specialist knowledge and so forth.

  • There’s an easy way to “grandfather” a select number of current Peers — allow them to stand for election, like any other candidate. Doubtless enough of them would be elected to ensure continuity.

  • Antony Hook 6th Oct '10 - 1:00pm

    Get rid of all the unelected and do it now.

  • paul barker 6th Oct '10 - 2:00pm

    Mark, some figures would help, how many Peers are under 40 ? It looks to me like your exagerating this problem. Isnt it the case that a lot of Peers hardly ever turn up ?

  • Richard Gadsden 6th Oct '10 - 5:34pm

    One possible compromise that I’ve heard floated would go something like this:

    The elected members of the Lords will be elected for 15 year terms, with a third being re-elected on the same day as the General Election. Let’s suppose that this third is 100 peers.

    If we followed the rules that apply to the analogous situation of a council electing by thirds that has an all-up election (eg after boundary changes), we’d elect 300 peers in 2015, 100 for 5 years, 100 for 10 years and 100 for 15 years. However, that would result in a Lords that would be entirely based on the votes in 2015, where the intention is that it should be driven by a longer-term trend.

    So a possible compromise would be that 100 unelected peers would stay until 2020 and a further 100 until 2025, with those two groups elected in 2015 by the last unelected house from amongst their own number [alternatively, they could be allocated to parties, with the until 2020 allocation based on votes in 2005 and the until 2025 allocation based on votes in 2010].

    It’s far from perfect, but if you want a House of Lords with long terms, single-term-limits and partial elections, then you can’t elect the initial house all at once anyway. I’m not convinced at all that these are actually desirable properties of the House of Lords – I’d prefer an all-up election every five years in a different cycle from the Commons – but this seems to be the version of elections that is going to be put through.

  • tonygreaves 6th Oct '10 - 5:53pm

    A few comments:

    Mark – your figure for the number of members of the Lords (738) is technically wrong. The number at the last count was 777 with two more to come. Take off 23 for the moment – these are former law lords now the supreme court who are not turning up until they retire (but can do so after that). That makes 754. There are some who have taken leave of absence which may bring it down to 738 – but they can always come back if they wish (as Andrew Phillips has just done) though to be fair most are on leave of absence due to age and/or illness.

    We are expecting another 50 or so working peers (ie political party appointments) within weeks. This is clearly a nonsense even though it will strengthen LD ranks.

    If you go with the idea of long single-term appointments (by election) say of 15 years – which I think is LD policy – you need to phase it in. And so you need to phase out existing membership in some way. (Members leaving would not cease to be peers – the peerage and membership of the House of Lords are already different things).

    It is almost certain that some form of appointment of a minority of peers will be kept in order to maintain the cross-benches (independents).

    Much of this kind of thing will be needed if a reform bill is going to get through the Lords. Otherwise the government might have to rely on the Parliament Acts: but using them to fundamentally change the Lords itself has a rather nasty taste to it and I am sure the government will want to avoid it if at all possible.

    I am in favour of a 100% elected House. But I am also in favour of phasing in as the only way that much of the present ethos and working practices of the Lords can be transferred to the new body. Yes, I do think that is very worth doing – you may say I have been socialised by the place. On the other hand I understand how it works and can see the benefits – and we do not want a replica House of Commons.

    As for the 24 Bishops, the sooner they are invited to return to their true vocations the better.

    Tony Greaves

  • Anthony Aloysius St 7th Oct '10 - 12:31am

    “But I am also in favour of phasing in as the only way that much of the present ethos and working practices of the Lords can be transferred to the new body.”

    But on any reckoning there are going to be large numbers of existing peers standing for election and being elected in any case. Isn’t that enough, for God’s sake?

  • James Hamilton 7th Oct '10 - 11:21am

    Apart from anything else it seems non sensical to refer to the new chamber as the house of Lords, and it’s occupants as Lords or Peers. You can’t elect Lords FFS, it’s what makes them Lords.

    The new chamber will be just that, a new chamber. It won’t need grandfathered life peers, because it will be up to the new chamber, they’ll start from scratch. The fact that it will have ex peers, and probably ex MPs will probably help but won’t be essential. Terms will need to be co-synchronous with the Commons and the Government. Why should a democratically elected government be stalled by a third of the members of the second chamber, elected in a different election under different circumstances. The second chamber needs to be as legitimate as the commons.

    My prefered name for the new second chamber would be the Witan (brought back after an absence of 950 years, and it’s members MWs or Members of the Witan 🙂

  • Dinti Batstone 8th Oct '10 - 9:07am

    Surely any new appointments should sign away ‘grandfathering’ expectations as a condition of their appointment…
    It makes no sense to keep appointing new people who expect to be there for life!

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