Big Debate: Should the House of Lords be 100% democratically elected?

Peers in the House of Lords. Picture: Ben Stansall/PA Images

Peers in the House of Lords. Picture: Ben Stansall/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

This week we ask if it’s time for the House of Lords to do away with tradition and become wholly democratically elected.

Paul Reynolds, left, and Attic Rahman

Paul Reynolds, left, and Attic Rahman - Credit: Archant

At the end of last month, David Cameron created 45 new peers – pushing House of Lords numbers to 826. It came in the wake of the resignation of John Sewel, its deputy speaker, following a scandal. The Taxpayers’ Alliance reacted to the newcomers by saying: “We are approaching the point when the House will struggle to [work] effectively through its sheer size.” A study, meanwhile, found that big party donors are 200 times more likely to be made peers. So we asked: Should the House of Lords be 100 per cent democratically elected?

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Paul Reynolds, former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for West Ham

A majority of democracies in the world have two elected chambers of parliament. Why ?

First, because in “lower chambers” like the House of Commons, the hurly-burly of daily politics makes it useful to have a chamber which stands back, looking expertly and thinking longer term about new laws being proposed.

Second, because electoral systems can give too much power to single parties, to particular parts of the country, or even to dominant regions – whose interests may be neglected.

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In the USA, for example, there is a two-chamber system to make sure less populated states are not bullied by more populated ones.

In the UK, the upper chamber, the House of Lords, was created not only to stand back, but also to protect interests – those of the landowning aristocracy.

The original idea was to make sure that our elected MPs could not bully rich landowners.

Nowadays the House of Lords is not exclusively for landowners; nevertheless, most of them are wealthy and 100 or so are still there by birth. All get £300 a day just for turning up.

But the House of Lords is weak, and doesn’t do its jobs very well.

Almost all Lords leverage their status to conduct private business.

It doesn’t effectively protect sections of the UK population that might be neglected by the Commons system.

It does the standing back scrutiny of laws slightly better, but the UK parliament still has a reputation for passing poor quality and over-complicated laws.

It does its jobs poorly because it is not elected, and because it does not reflect the population it represents.

We need an elected second chamber with an election system and powers that enable it to do its two vital jobs more expertly and make British democracy serve the public better.

Attic Rahman, deputy chairman of East Ham Conservatives

The Lords’ primary function is to scrutinise and debate government bills. To do this effectively, it needs peers from all backgrounds and professions – yes, including previous ministers – to provide a wider debate beyond the political one.

In recent times, most peers are ennobled in recognition of the significant contributions they have made in their field of expertise or for their work to further a noble cause.

Most aren’t politicians and have little desire for the political theatre. They want to contribute to public life and sitting in the Lords allows them to have a direct influence. And this is the first problem – we risk losing honourable people who will not put themselves forward for election.

There is a strong argument in favour of abolishing life peers – this is understandable. But to break away from 10 centuries of tradition and history? A debate perhaps for constitutional scientists.

In theory, a fully democratically elected Lords will be diverse and accountable. All well and said, but isn’t that what MPs are elected to do?

The late Foreign Secretary Robin Cook once said: “It is impossible to think of such a chamber accepting that it could not legislate on taxation or that it could delay legislation, not throw it out.”

This is the second problem. We risk moving away from the scrutinising and debating Government to a second form of power directly challenging the Commons.

The case for reform is not a new one. There have been welcome steps to Lords reform – Lords can now retire and be expelled; there is a general consensus on reducing the size of the second chamber and a serious debate on limiting the term of patronage.

However, a fully elected House of Lords is simply unworkable with the risk of alienating the very expertise it requires to function.

In light of the recent public scandals, I hope the good work of the Lords with its traditions and history is not lost forever.