House of Lords reform: Independence, expertise and a strange case of false logic

Electoral Reform Society
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Electoral Reform Society

Posted on the 15th March 2012

The argument that independence and expertise exist in abundance amongst our current peers is now being cited as a key reason against reforming the House of Lords.

If preserving these features is a core argument against reform, surely it is time to examine these claims? So what is meant by ‘independence’ and how independent is the current House of Lords? What sort of expertise does it have and how and when does Parliament as a whole benefit from it?

The Electoral Reform Society will soon be publishing a report looking at these issues and defenders of the status quo may find some of the results surprising.

The House of Lords is often said to be free from the party political dynamics of the Commons. It is less strongly whipped and benefits from having Crossbench members who are not party affiliated. It is a place, many argue, where reasoned debate triumphs over “yah boo” politics.

There are of course features of the current set up which do contribute to a different style of politics, but it would be a mistake to assume that this makes the current House of Lords a politically neutral house of experts.

Of the 117 new members of the House of Lords appointed since May 2010, half are either former MPs or former local Councillors, a further fifth are former special advisors, party employees or executives. In fact since 1997 nearly a third of those granted peerages are former MPs or MEPs. The total number of former MPs in the House currently stands at 195, about a quarter of the total but a very active quarter.

Party voting is also incredibly cohesive despite not being whipped; absences have been more instrumental than rebellions in securing government defeats in the past. In fact the House as a whole has become increasingly political since the 1999 reforms.

The formation of a Coalition Government has shifted the balance of power again, creating a government majority in the Upper House. The government cannot be defeated in the Lords unless there is substantial crossbench opposition (or party rebellions). Recent government defeats in the Lords have been due to significant crossbench opposition. This is unusual. Turnout is usually very low amongst crossbench peers and, having no uniform position, their votes often cancel one another out.

Clearly the House is neither neutral, non-partisan nor independent. But what of expertise?

In a recent article in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf claimed that a reformed House of Lords with elected members would fail to provide sufficient expertise. He argued that an elected chamber would contain “members less qualified to provide authoritative scrutiny than the present House of Lords”. He does not clarify what it is about earning the legitimacy of the popular vote that precludes a person having expertise on a subject or indeed, if this is the case, how the House of Lords is presently so expert when it is heavily populated by people who have spent many years fighting elections as MPs or Councillors.

If we accept that the argument that the Upper House is a house of experts, does this make it an expert house? Many of the Crossbench Peers, expert in their professional areas, attend the house very rarely (18 was the average attendance in whipped divisions between 1999 and 2005). The vast majority of the scrutiny therefore must be done by party political peers. In fact many Lords argue that it is the length of time given to scrutinising legislation in the Lords which contributes to effective scrutiny and revision, not simply the backgrounds of those doing it.

There are valuable elements of the current House of Lords worth recognising and expertise and independence are indeed important aims. The mistake is in assuming that these characteristics are naturally imbued in the Upper Chamber as it stands, simply because its members are appointed. Political patronage and appointment does not guarantee effective independence and expertise any more than election would automatically preclude them.

By failing to challenge these assumptions, and by allowing a fear of change to define the debate, we risk losing the best chance of reform for a lifetime.

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