The House of Lords Needs a Major Overhaul, Not Tinkering Around the Edges

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 4th August 2015

Calls for reform of the House of Lords have been heard even more loudly that normal in the last ten days and the reason is fairly obvious.  The current set-up comes nowhere close to being right for the 21st Century.

Some people have been surprised to learn the size of the House of Lords.  The sad truth is that it is bursting at the seams with nearly 800 voting members, in what is already the second largest chamber in the world (after China), and the only legislature in Europe that’s fully unelected.

Last week we found out that there’s set to be even more added in.  The Prime Minister seems determined that the 37% of the vote that the Conservatives earned in May should translate into control of both chambers at Westminster.  That could mean an extra 100 peers getting the ermine robes on and push the size of the Lords even closer to the thousand mark.  David Cameron has confirmed that despite the public outrage over the size and cost of the Lords he plans to appoint another batch over the summer.  Apparently there are complaints from civil servants about the number of party donors that are proposed.  So much for a chamber full of experts.

One interesting development however has been the reaction of the Westminster club.  We’ve seen some well-motivated suggestions but despite overwhelming public backing for a serious clean-up of the chamber, most of the ideas barely scratch the surface in addressing the real need for democratic reform.

Lord Bew’s call over the weekend for over 75s to be stripped of their £300-a-day (tax-free) allowance in the Lords misses the point. Ending the practice of Peers turning up and doing no work is crucial, but this isn’t an issue of age – it’s an issue of accountability.

There is simply no democratic scrutiny of our unelected upper chamber – and introducing age limits wouldn’t stop those under 75 turning up and doing nothing. Holding them to account at the ballot box, however, would work.

The same goes for Lord Soley’s proposal for Lords to be immediately kicked out if they generate bad headlines – an arbitrary and even less democratic process than the one at present.  It’s easy to see that becoming a politically motivated kangaroo court.

One fresh idea has come from Scottish Labour leadership hopeful Kezia Dugdale.  The exact location of an elected upper chamber is up for discussion, but she is certainly right to look at where power lies in the UK when she calls for an accountable second house to be based in Glasgow.  Ms Dugdale thinks this would show “power is literally on the move from Westminster” and argues that establishing an elected chamber in Scotland would be appropriate for the nation that most recently reaffirmed its position in the Union.

It’s an interesting idea and is certainly more radical in thinking than some of the other options on the table.

The House of Lords needs a major overhaul, not tinkering around the edges. We need an elected upper chamber where the people who vote on our laws are elected by the public. Playing around the edges will do little to restore confidence in the broken and out-of-date chamber that the Lords clearly is. It’s time for the public to have a say.

This piece was originally published at the Huffington Post

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