1,000 new Peers? No thanks

Katie Ghose, former Chief Executive

Posted on the 7th November 2016

“If the Lords was obstructive we would just have to create 1,000 peers.”

So said Jacob Rees-Mogg MP on Thursday, following the High Court’s ruling that MPs will have a vote on the triggering of Article 50 – the process for withdrawing from the EU.

It’s a terrifying thought. But it’s an attitude that we’ve heard too often over the years – that is, If the House of Lords does too much scrutiny, the solution is to stuff it with loyalists, party donors and special advisers to be trusted with the job of just waving everything through.

1,000 Peers. Let’s think about that. Each peer costs roughly £26,000 per year in expenses and allowances – without counting the increased infrastructure costs (office space, food, publications, stationary and a million other things). It’s also impossible – there’s no room for the current 800+ as it is.

That works out to £26m per year. A single year. Presumably they’ll stick around for a while, so that’s hundreds of millions of pounds just to get a policy through.

Now, Rees-Mogg was of course (we hope) being slightly facetious. But it is suggestive of a broader mentality in that our unelected Lords are seen: bluntly, as lobby-fodder to do the government’s bidding. The incentive, of course, is to always stuff the Lords with as many cronies as possible. And why wouldn’t they? There are no limits.

This isn’t an isolated suggestion. It has happened in practice time and time again under governments of all stripes. The size of the Lords under Labour, despite some limited reform, jumped significantly not long before the 2010 General Election, funnily enough…

And in July 2015, the PM at the time, David Cameron, wanted to be sure he could get his policies on Europe and welfare through without much trouble: there were rumours of him appointing over 100 Peers even then.

And then he left Theresa May a gift upon his resignation this year – dozens of Conservative Peers for his ‘resignation honours’ list, making the Tories the biggest group in the Lords.

And it makes sense, in a way – the Conservatives have the most support. But the public had no say over the numbers or the individuals, meaning it looked like a cynical plot to pack the upper house.

Now, wouldn’t it be better to have a revising chamber where that not only wasn’t possible – i.e. to stuff it full of lobby-fodder – but where people elected it, proportionally, perhaps regionally, and with the clear remit of improving legislation.

At the moment we have the worst of both worlds – it lacks democratic legitimacy, lessening its authority, but when it threatens to undermine a government’s plans we see threats – often eventually fulfilled – to overwhelm it with Peers from the governing party.

So, whether the suggestion was fully serious or not, Jacob Rees-Mogg has raised a point. The government could stick 1,000 Tory Peers in the Lords if they wanted to. But it’s no recipe for good governance or how a modern democracy should function.

If the government cares about fulfilling the will of the British people, and having a genuinely decent and well-functioning scrutinising chamber, It’s time for a fairly elected upper house.

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