Once again, the government have ignored the consensus for Lords reform. Enough is enough

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 8th March 2019

The facts surrounding the dire state of the House of Lords are clear. It is grossly oversized – the largest legislative chamber in the world outside of China.

It is wasteful: in the 2010-2015 parliament, £360,000 was claimed by peers in years they failed to vote once, while 109 peers failed to speak at all in the 2016/17 session. Sixty-three of those claimed expenses – claiming a total of £1,095,701. 33 peers claimed nearly half a million pounds between them while failing to speak, table a written question or serve on a committee in 2016/17.

And it is far from ‘independent’: ERS analysis shows that nearly 80 percent of Conservative peers didn’t once vote against the government in 2016/17. Of the Labour peers who voted, 50 percent voted against the government more than 90 percent of the time. And non-partisan crossbenchers often don’t turn up – over 40 percent voted fewer than 10 times last year: leaving decisions in the hands of the party whips.

But in the face of a consensus that this bloated, unelected house should be shrunk down to size, The government have dismissed this consensus.

In a response to the Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this week, ministers refused to back change, in a statement from Minister for the Constitution Chloe Smith MP [see link above].

That decision earned a rebuke from committee chair Sir Bernard Jenkin MP.

Both chambers of Parliament – the House of Commons through PACAC, and the House of Lords through the Lord Speaker’s Committee – have now called for concrete moves to a smaller second chamber. But the government have repeatedly ignored calls for reform, saying it is ‘not a priority’. That is despite Ministers planning to impose a costly mandatory voter ID policy.

Campaigners and MPs are hitting back. Sir Bernard Jenkin MP criticises the government for urging ‘more time’ to discuss the issue of Lords reform: “The Government has now had over a year since the publication of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House Report (Burns Report), and almost a year since the Prime Minister wrote to the Lord Speaker saying the Government needed more time to consider the longer-term issues,” he writes to Cabinet Minister Chloe Smith MP.

The government’s dismissal of change will only increase calls for a substantive overhaul. As Sir Bernard Jenkin notes: “This small incremental reform should not halt the pursuit of more radical reform to the second chamber, 107 years after the Parliament Act 1911 was passed only as a temporary expedient…this important constitutional issue must not be overlooked especially at a time when there is such widespread support for these proposals for what is clearly recognised as the ‘unarguable next step’.”

In her letter to PACAC Chair Sir Bernard Jenkin, Chloe Smith MP writes: “It is the restraint of Prime Ministers in making appointments, along with a commitment from Peers to retire at the appropriate time, that are crucial in reducing the size of the House of Lords in the shorter-term. And these should be the priority”.

Bizarrely, the government seem to be suggesting it is official policy to simply wait for Peers to quit (or pass away) as a ‘strategy’ for cutting Lords numbers.

There’s no doubt about it. By dismissing even this incremental reform, the government is playing fast and loose with our democracy. To write off calls for piecemeal reform will only increase calls for a substantive overhaul. Over 170,000 people signed a petition calling for the abolition of the Lords last year

Meanwhile, relying on Prime Ministers to exercise ‘restraint’ to keep the Lords down to size is both naïve and reckless – that restraint could be undone at any time of the PM’s choosing.

The government say they need more time to consider proposals for a smaller house – but they’ve had a year and a half: what are they waiting for? Voters and Parliament are tired of waiting.

As Sir Bernard Jenkin rightly notes, the government’s excuse that ‘other issues’ are dominating the agenda, why then are they continuing with disastrous and expensive plans to ban people without the right papers from voting? This issue is far more serious: it is time we tackled the burning injustice of a bloated, unelected house.

While the government dithers, Peers continue to lobby and abuse their positions with impunity, while millions of pounds are claimed by those who fail to properly contribute to the work of the house. It is time for a much smaller, proportionally-elected chamber representing the nations and regions of the UK – and to finally put a stop to this undemocratic farce.

Oh and finally – let’s not forget there is currently a hereditary peer ‘by-election’ going on – an absolutely absurd process… (Sadly, a Bill by Lord Grocott to abolish the process has been repeatedly ‘talked out’ of time by hereditary peers.)

Read the ERS’ report on the Lords: The High Cost of Small Change

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