The House of Lords is broken – now’s a good time to fix it

The denial stage is over.  Opponents of Lords reform have woken up to the Government’s plans and are mobilising.  But the reform plan is far from dead.

What’s the problem with the House of Lords?  It chalks up the odd success in challenging and revising legislation, without challenging the democratic credentials of the Commons.  But that doesn’t mean “It ain’t broke, so don’t fix it” – the argument used against regulating the banks more tightly before the financial crisis.  The fact is that the Lords is not up to its job and things are getting worse.

Appointment to the House of Lords is one way traffic.  Once appointed, almost nothing short of death deprives you of the right to take part in the legislative process.  This gives rise to two practical problems, never mind democratic legitimacy: size and accountability.  There is no one-in-one out rule for the Lords.  Political leaders regularly appoint new members to maintain political balance and to make sure that there are enough peers young and enthusiastic enough to do the hard graft – not forgetting the need to offer consolation prizes to victims of the political process.  There are now over 800 – compared to the Commons which has 650, with a plan to reduce it to 500.  This is a bit of a joke.

But this is less of problem than it might be because of the second issue: there is no accountability for what peers get up to after they are appointed.  That means that most of them don’t do much at all.  Many just turn up on the big occasions, make a speech, vote, and then clear off thinking that they have added to value to the legislative process.  But the Lords’s key work is detailed revision – this is the bit people say works.  Legislation that leaves the Commons often lacks detail or hasn’t been thought through.  This revision doesn’t happen in set piece debates.  It happens in and around committees, and requires a serious commitment of time – you need to get into the details, take evidence, and so on.  That the Lords does this as much as it does is one of the wonders of the British system, but only a tiny minority of peers actually get involved in this grind, and they are self-appointed, and get little logistical support.  It is distinctly ad-hoc and amateur.  This creates a lot of charm, that seems to bewitch many of those that come into contact with it But it really isn’t up to the job in the increasingly complex world of legislation.  And its failures are largely invisible.  Poorly thought through legislation happens all the time – the last government had to introduce a new act on criminal justice almost every year, since they kept failing to nail the problems – but we blame ministers and the Commons for this, not a House of Lords that was out to lunch.

So the Lords (or whatever else we might call a revising chamber) needs to be more accountable and more professional.  That means appointing professionals to it with some process of reporting back to those that appoint them, and for limited terms.  That has to mean elections of some kind.  This is what the Government’s reform is trying to do.

And that is all it is trying to do.  Many of us would like a new constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, based on a constitutional convention.  The primary purpose of such a convention would be to resolve the status of the country’s constituent parts, in the face of demands from many Scots for independence.  A reformed upper chamber could play a role in any such settlement.  But we aren’t going to get a convention, because our political class doesn’t see the need, and the public at large seems indifferent – in England especially.  Meanwhile the Lords bumbles on in its current form.

Will the proposed reform do the job?  I don’t know.  It’s a messy compromise because the government needs to build consensus.  The important issue is to break through the untouchability of the Lords’s status, and bulldoze aside the biggest roadblock to change, which is the unelected Lords themselves.  We can amend later the bits that don’t work as well as they should.

And now is a good time to take the issue on.  The Government has passed most the new legislation it wanted to; it has three relatively uncluttered years to push things through.  Of course the economy is in a mess, but, God help us, we don’t need our parliament to pass lots more laws to help us out.  The economy is a matter for the executive, not the legislature.

Will it work?  It stands a better chance than changing the voting system.  Then the forces of darkness (by which I mean the conservative press and political donors) mobilised against the AV reform, making supporters look weak.  The Conservative Party was united against it.  This reform has the Prime Minister on board.  The forces of darkness have not yet mobilised one way or the other, and may be persuaded to stay quiet, given that upping the temperature could really hurt the Tory party.

But the reform’s supporters may well need to concede a referendum in order to get it through parliament, whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue.  The opinion polls suggest that such a referendum would be won comfortably – but they are near meaningless.  But if the press barons are silent, and a reasonably strong coalition supports them, with important figures from across the political spectrum and and outside it,  then it’s winnable. There’s all to play for.