Liberal Youth on House of Lords Reform

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Democracy. Representation. Adaptability. This is what our British Political System is prided upon. So, how is it that in the 21st Century we still possess a chamber where those who are meant to represent us are not elected? Not only this, but a significant percentage are not appointed on the basis of merit at all, but their ancestral heritage? This article will strive to argue why reform of this institution must take place, while discussing which method of reform is the best option.

House of Lords reform is not a recent issue. It was under the last Liberal Government that this skewed form of representation was fully addressed. Through the implementation of the Parliament Act of 1911, the power of this unelected chamber was significantly reduced by removing the Lords’ ability to veto money bills. No longer could they block legislation that could have potentially reduced their money interests. Successive governments have subsequently attempted to address the issue of reform. The most recent being Labours’ passing of the House of Lords Act in 1999 which attempted to remove hereditary peerage. However, such a deal was made on a basis of compromise, meaning that 92 hereditaries still remain, and peers are unelected. Is this reform enough? I suggest not. For how can we argue that we live in a truly representative democracy when the institutions that are supposed to reflect our interests appoint unqualified individuals without our consent? Hereditaries remove incentive to work harder.

For it is astounding that in this day and age, 92 members of a parliamentary institution are appointed on a hereditary basis. Not on one of merit. So, what? Some might say. Well, for one, this is undemocratic. The protection of our rights and interests and those of the state should be performed by someone with the skills needed on the basis of merit. No citizen would intentionally choose to be represented by someone who simply inherited this position of responsibility because of their privileged background without the skills or knowledge necessary. Also, it furthers the argument that those from a ‘privileged background’ are better equipped in terms of intellect to be dealing with important matters. This is represented by the statistic that in 2005, 62% of peers had been educated at an independent school [1]. It is evident here that as an institution, the House of Lords still appears as primarily elitist and unrepresentative.

In discussing electoral reform of the House of Lords, a range of options are available: one such alternative includes the abolition of the chamber completely. This would leave Britain with a unicameral parliament, as seen in such countries as Sweden. However, even though the House of Lords may currently still retain closed elitist foundations, the functions that it performs must not be underestimated. By scrutinising bills, it acts as an important check on the House of Commons, with its ability to amend and delay the passing of legislature. Considering that our British Political System is built upon a fusion of powers, the role that the House of Lords plays as a check is an essential one. Therefore, abolition of the chamber completely is not favourable. Rather, in a time where there appears to be a growing disenchantment with the political system in general, we should promote a democratic representative basis for our democracy by electing the House of Lords. The Liberal Democrats in their manifesto have supported the option of a 300 member hybrid house. Under which 80% would be elected, with 20% appointed on basis of specialist knowledge including reserve space for some Church of England Bishops [2]. Hereditaries would be completely removed with single non-renewable terms of 15 years elected under the Single Transferable Vote. This option appears favourable with the creation of a more democratic chamber that still retains the function of possessing specialist knowledge.

Under the Coalition government, despite the fact that Lords reform was found to be in both parties’ manifestos, its implementation appears to be a constant uphill struggle. Backbenchers within both parties appear unconvinced on the issue of reform. However, at significant points in Britain’s history, policies on reform have always faced opposition, such as the question of implementing social reform at the end of WW2. Yet, through its passing, we achieved the result of the welfare state. The British political tradition may be conservative in nature, but this is not to advocate undemocratic institutions. The House of Lords must undergo reform to promote more effective scrutiny of legislation by those with the skills necessary. Reform would also result in a stronger sense of representation for the British people. In a time where there appears to be a growing disenchantment with the political system in general, this appears to be an essential move towards a fairer, more equal, more effective parliament.

Article by Fran Hinton. Edited by George Richards.

Further Reading:

[1] http://www.suttontrust.com/research/ed-backgrounds-of-commons-and-lords/

[2] http://www.libdems.org.uk/our_manifesto.aspx