Meet the Lords

This evening’s BBC2 “documentary of the week” Meet the Lords is the first of a series of three, with unprecedented access to the Palace of Westminster, to Peers and to the inner workings of the Lords’ operation.  Having seen a sneak preview, we are hopeful that some of the contents will renew public support for our longstanding campaign to replace the Lords with a modern, elected chamber.

The century-long Lords reform saga took another turn at the beginning of this year, when a new group was set up by the Lord Speaker.  It is to consider “the extent to which changes can be made without legislation”, and in particular it aims to find ways by which to reduce the size of the Lords.  It therefore has an impossible task, because the size of the Lords cannot be substantively reduced without legislation to amend the Life Peerages Act 1958.

What can be limited is the pace of growth of the Lords, which would require a self-denying ordinance on the part of Number 10.  In our evidence to the Group, we suggest that it should start by asking the Government either to commit to a moratorium on appointments during this Parliament or to accept a cap equivalent to 50% of the number leaving the House (by virtue of retirement or death) in a given year.  Without such a commitment, there is hardly any point in handwringing over how to persuade Peers to retire, since they will immediately be replaced.

We also suggest that one, immediate bit of progress could be for the Lords to complete consideration and passage of Lord Grocott’s Private Member’s Bill (link), which would end hereditary by-elections.  These take place whenever one of the 92 hereditary peers dies, to bring another former member of the aristocracy in by way of replacement.  The system is so absurd that the electorate is often smaller than the number of candidates standing!  The whole arrangement was only ever supposed to be temporary, pending the introduction of a comprehensive reform Bill to create an elected second chamber – a promise never delivered by Tony Blair’s government.

Now that the present government has made clear it will not create an elected Lords either, it cannot be defensible to continue bringing new Peers in on the basis of who their fathers were.  We also argue that undertakings given in the 1997-2001 Parliament cannot be expected to bind the 2015 Parliament, any more than the votes of the 1970-74 Parliament can constrain the current Parliament in relation to the 1972 European Communities Act.  The Lords could and should act now to snuff out the hereditary principle in our Parliament, and it would then be for the Commons to pass the Bill swiftly too.

As the BBC2 documentary will record in subsequent episodes, the Lords does make a substantial contribution to the process of law-making in the UK, and it often holds the Government to account more effectively than the highly disproportionate House of Commons.  This very week, it is attempting to do so on the Article 50 Bill and Brexit.

Yet its system for remunerating members, its size, and its composition based on party patronage all bring its good work into disrepute.  Lib Dems will continue to argue, as we have in the submission to this latest group, that in a parliamentary democracy the only sustainable method for deciding who should be added to a House of Parliament – and who subtracted – should be democracy.  If the Coalition Government’s Bill to this end had been enacted in 2012, the first elected members would have entered the House in 2015, and the tenor of this week’s documentary might have been quite different.

Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard are members of the Lib Dem Constitutional and Political Reform Team

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Connair Russell 27th Feb '17 - 6:36pm

    Has public support lapsed? In 2015 only around 10% of the public wanted to keep the current system. The problem isn’t the public, it’s our horribly broken political system.

  • All hail self-denying ordinances!

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