The House of Lords is back in spotlight this morning, last night having again challenged the government’s Brexit plans by voting 336 to 268 for Parliament to be granted a meaningful vote on the final deal. This coincides with a BBC series Meet the Lords which is providing plenty of fodder for those who believe our second chamber is in need of reform.
Watching peers go about their daily work in Meet the Lords the lack of representativeness is stark, especially regarding age (most are over 70 years old and just 29 are aged under 50), but also geography. 44% of peers live in London or the South-east. Given the quasi-federal nature of the UK, following significant devolution from Westminster to Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish institutions coupled with the Prime Minister’s emphasis on an industrial strategy that works for the whole country this failure to reflect all nations and regions of the UK gap sits oddly with the direction of our constitution – and our economic ambitions.
But it is the upcoming by-election (another oddity in a largely appointed chamber) for a successor to Lord Lyell who died in January that especially deserves our attention on International Women’s Day. All the candidates to replace Lord Lyell are men. Women are ineligible to succeed to the majority of hereditary peerages and the parents of any successor must be both married and parents by blood for it to pass on excluding gay couples or those who choose not to get married. Parliament reserves 92 places for hereditary peers, of whom there are currently 91 men and 1 woman. And it is 2017.
Even royal succession laws have overtaken this absurd and unfair practice. The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 removed male bias to ensure that royal sons no longer take precedence over their sisters, even if they are first-born. The Lords is lagging behind by continuing to pick their peers from a tiny pool of aristocrats and the implications for gender equality are glaringly obvious. Many are diligent in their contributions to the work of the House – and contribute as many hours as some of their appointed counterparts - but from an equality perspective this is even worse. It is a real job, with real influence, from which women are effectively barred.
Regardless of the worth – and work – by individual members, to allow anyone to inherit a place in Parliament is an embarrassing state of affairs. It puts a brake on achieving a chamber more reflective of Britain today. Which is disastrous, when we know that politics and people are driven further apart when institutions fail to reflect society.
Temporary measures, such as quotas or party funding incentives to even the playing field and achieve gender parity often court controversy; and yet we are seemingly content to tolerate a situation where reserving 11.4% of the total number of places in the House of Lords are effectively reserved for men.
The Prime Minister has a strong track record of championing women’s representation in her party. In 2005 she co-founded the Conservatives’ Women2Win group with Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, that has successfully supported many women into Parliament. The parliamentary ‘ping pong’ over Brexit will soon be over and the bill passed into law, but the unfinished business of House of Lords reform will remain. Now at 806 peers, Theresa May will have to tackle the unsustainable size of the Lords.
Be Bold for Change is this year’s International Women’s day theme. Scrapping hereditary places – a blatant handout of political offices to male aristocrats - would be a fitting place to start in dragging our constitution into the 21st century and proving that politics is serious about tackling the deep-rooted gender imbalance that continues to plague its institutions.