Parliament’s second chamber – and the weakness of its first

The House of Lords is indefensible in its current form of appointment patronage and bloated size.  Yet the failure of the Commons to check the way the executive governs or to ensure that Bills presented don’t become law until that make sense has made the current Lords, flawed as it is, essential to British democracy.  Yes, that’s deeply paradoxical: an appointed chamber standing up for democracy against ‘the elected House’.

We’ve just seen with the Rwanda Bill the Commons voting repeatedly to allow the government to declare that Rwanda ‘is a safe county’ without reference to evidence or changing circumstances.  Cross-benchers in the Lords, led by retired judges and distinguished lawyers, insisted that it is an offense against the rule of law to legislate that what we say is true whatever the evidence suggests.  On Monday the Lords, reluctantly, backed down, after sustained cross-party cooperation in resisting in which Liberal Democrats had played an active part.  30-40 Conservative peers had refused, in the more loosely-whipped Lords, to vote against amendments to what they accepted was an unworkable Bill.  But after the longest series of ‘ping pong’ exchanges that Parliament has seen for many years both crossbenchers and Labour accepted that the government had to prevail, and Liberal Democrats could do no more..

Parliamentary democracy is supposed to be about representative institutions (and courts) carefully limiting the power of the executive.  But the Commons provide almost no effective checks on executive power, as opposed to the theatre of staged confrontation that is Prime Minister’s Questions and major debates.  The size of the government payroll has steadily increased over recent decades.  Junior ministers have spread, moving from one post to another before they’ve finished learning their brief, to a point where most Lords ministers are now unpaid – since there’s a statutory limit on paid ministerial posts.  Parliamentary private secretaries were limited to senior Cabinet minister 50 years ago; they’ve proliferated, attracting ambitious MPs who hope that loyalty will bring promotion.  Trade envoys, deputy chairmen of the party, ‘tsars’ with allocated tasks, all subject to dismissal if they disobey the whip.  The Labour opposition maintains a shadow team almost as large, which means that in total almost a third of the Commons behave like front-benchers rather than concentrating on holding the government to account.

Worse than this, the government whips have adopted the practice of blocking MPs who are expert but potentially independent-minded from appointment to Bill committees.  The result is that government bills sail through the Commons at speed, often unamended and as often with significant sections unexamined due to ‘guillotines’ on time allocated.

One result of this is that the Commons sat for fewer hours per week in the last session than the Lords – that is, the full-time House went home earlier most days than the officially part-time 2nd chamber. Another result is that Lords scrutiny of Bills often starts with quotations from critical Conservative MPs and promises to table their unsuccessful Commons amendments again.  The overwhelming majority of amendments passed on government bills are passed in the Lords.  The conventional understanding between the House has long been that ministers will either accede to many of these amendments or offer government amendments in response that go some way towards meeting justified criticism.  But that convention, too, has weakened in the course of this Parliament, with ministers claiming that they represent ‘the will of the people’ against Parliament and that the Lords is part of Britain’s lefty establishment.

Britain’s democracy is in desperate need of reform.  Johnson and Truss, the bitter factionalism of the Conservative Party, and the twists and turns of opposition parties have undermined the checks and balances of our unwritten constitution.   Ministers, from Sunak down, spend more of their time campaigning (in high-viz jackets, of course) than governing – which has left us with poorer government decisions, rapid reversals in policy and spending, and consequent rising public disillusion.  Yes, the Lords should urgently be reformed in methods of appointment, size and composition.  But the Commons presents  some even more immediate problems – and it’s unlikely that an incoming Labour government will want to tackle them.  Executive power is enticing to hold; there’s little sign yet that Starmer understands that he’d be better off with a more independent Parliament and a slower but steadier policy-making process.

Westminster and Whitehall have wasted much time and money on the Rwanda Bill.  Many Conservatives quietly admit that it cannot deliver what it promises, that Rwanda is not safe, that the long-term challenges of migration require other responses.   Meanwhile other issues are left to one side, or misrepresented by the right-wing press in response to Downing Street briefings.  The weaknesses of Westminster underpin bad government.


* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • Michael Cole 26th Apr '24 - 2:15pm

    As usual, expert analysis and much good sense from Lord Wallace.

    Electoral and constitutional reform must be a major part of our national campaign.

  • David Symonds 26th Apr '24 - 3:50pm

    The UK desperately needs a new constitutional settlement. The Commons needs to be elected by STV and the Lords recast as a Senate. Others have stated that both Chambers must not be in competition with each other and the Commons remain the premier chamber. The Senate could be 80% elected, using the Party List d’Hondt system and the remainder appointed by an independent commission, which could include some crossbenchers there in the Lords now. Certainly it is antiquated that Bishops from the Church of England are in the Lords as we are now a secular and multi-faith society. The Lords is bloated in numbers and should be no more than 400 members as opposed to 650 for the Commons. We should not allow Prime Ministers to dictate when to call General Elections and the Commons should be a fixed term of 4 years. All English Councils should be elected by STV as Scotland and Northern Ireland and hopefully Wales, transforming local government and preventing Tory or Labour citadels with no opposition.

  • I’m not being flattering but I struggle to see how the second would be improved by removing people of the calibre of Lord Wallace, Lord Dubs etc and replacing them with people elected from an STV list.

  • David Symonds 26th Apr '24 - 9:57pm

    Marco, the names you mention are all excellent and could be included on any ballot for the Senate on a party list. I thought we are trying to get away from nominated members if at all possible and junk the Lords in its current form? The Electoral Reform Society in fact wants fully elected Senators. I think that some nominees say 20% minimum would allow a degree of independence and also allow the Senate not to be seen as mirroring the Commons.

  • David Symonds – I think in practice mid term “Senate” elections would be used to cast a protest vote. Expect to see Senator Farage trying to filibuster any bill he doesn’t like. I would say 100% independent appointment would be appropriate for the second chamber, it is there for scrutiny and revision and it needs experience and expertise not populist rancour.

  • Mary Fulton 27th Apr '24 - 7:12pm

    Surprised to see anyone argue for an appointed parliamentary chamber rather than it being fully elected. If that every became party policy would we have to rename ourselves the Liberal unDemocrats.

  • @ Mary Fulton – Fully and directly elected second chambers are relatively uncommon. It is more usual to have a mixture of indirect election and appointment. That is the system in most bicameral Western European countries and Canada. This avoids creating a rival chamber. If you had two chambers both elected by PR you would have deadlock.

  • Alex Macfie 2nd May '24 - 3:10pm

    Provided the two chambers have functions clearly specified in the constitution they won’t be “rivals”. And in a proper democracy the government shouldn’t always get its own way. If the 2nd Chamber is expected to back down at the insistence of the 1st or of government, then there isn’t much point in it.
    So an elected 2nd Chamber is fine, but with a different electoral system and cycles (staggered elections seems most appropriate), and its exact functions and powers enshrined in law. Having an unelected chamber muzzled by a gentlemen’s agreement is really not a satisfactory settlement. And Lib Dem peers don’t seem to be bound by this gentlemen’s agreement anyway, probably because we’re against the HoL as presently formed and have no wish to do anything to help it continue its existence. Labour, OTOH, is at bottom happy with it, which is why Labour peers do follow the gentlemen’s agreement not to disrupt the government’s legislative plan.

  • I think the fundamental reason for not having a fully elected 2nd chamber is that fully elected = full of politicians, and that means either it rubber-stamps whatever the Government is doing (if controlled by the same party) or wilfully opposes the Government just for the sake of opposition (if controlled by a different party). Neither is particularly helpful to good governance. I feel it would be more useful to develop the 2nd chamber into the role of providing more expert, thoughtful, scrutiny of Government that has no political motivation – which is kinda where the Lords has been moving to anyway. That would require some way of appointing/electing members that is removed from party politics – and also needs more legitimacy than the current awful system of political patronage: I’m not sure what the best way to accomplish that is, but I’m pretty sure it has to be a very different system from that used for electing the House of Commons, and may well require an appointed element.

  • Jenny Barnes 2nd May '24 - 4:31pm

    I think the HoL could be all elected, but on a different system to the HoC. There’s too many, so for every 2 that leave there would be one new vacancy (until we reach the desired number, maybe 200) At the next set of May elections, all the nominations for a seat would be up for voting and the highest voted N get in . Transferable vote system. Who makes the nominations? Good question!

  • @Mary Fulton
    “Surprised to see anyone argue for an appointed parliamentary chamber rather than it being fully elected.”
    You only need to look at the US to see the problems of two elected chambers and a written constitution…
    As others have said, give each house clearly defined functions and potentially prohibit political parties from standing candidates for both houses ! 🙂 and many problems may resolve…
    I’m unconvinced about making the second chamber smaller, instead make it larger and use technology to increase participation, highly necessary if its function is to scrutinise legislation and all the stuff the Executive uses its powers to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny.

  • Peter Hirst 7th May '24 - 1:39pm

    The other factor is the civil service. It should be responsible for ensuring proposed legislation does what it’s supposed to do, is workable and realistic. Though elected politicians determine the main thrust of legislation, it is only by giving civil servants sufficient autonomy and resources that Bills become valued documents that do not require a great deal of revising and amending. Civil Servants represent the public in that their work should ensure that both Houses’ work runs smoothly, thus improving the overall functioning of our democracy.

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