Reform often comes through an unusual mix of factors. They stir up within a short space of time – until the whole strange potion explodes.
It feels like we might be witnessing that process right now with the House of Lords.
Last Sunday the petition for an elected House of Lords hit 100,000 signatures. That means it will now be considered for a debate in Parliament by the Commons’ Petition Committee.
It has surged from about ten thousand signatures a few weeks ago to being one of the most-signed petitions on the site. It’s hard to see the Petitions Committee rejecting the reasonable request – from the now-120,000 citizens – to discuss the need to reform our upper chamber.
The day after that petition hit its threshold for a debate, the BBC aired the second episode of their ‘Meet the Lords’ series. Those in the Lords themselves highlighted the issue of non-attendance – with the door keeper saying ‘quite a few of the lords don’t take part in the House, but they do come in for a division“.
The real problem of Peers failing to turn up but still claiming their £300 tax-free allowance can’t be explained away by them being whips or in committee. We know the problem is serious: our research at the end of 2015 showed that £1.3m was claimed by 64 Peers in the 2014/15 financial period who failed to speak in that year. And Peers who failed to take part in any votes from 2010-2015 claimed £360,000 back from the taxpayer. Even those advocating modest reforms acknowledge that attendance is an issue.
This week’s episode featured some of the odder pomp and pageantry of our outdated upper house – in the words of The Times, ‘the robes. The wigs. The tights. The diamante buckles.’
And among the unusual dress sense, the ostentation of everything there, down to the food: ‘At one point we were shown a meal that involved cured pigeon and potted shrimp — a menu to make the wigs look modern. The Lords seem aware of their potential for antiquated comedy’, the Times reported.
This series comes alongside two inquiries on the state of the second chamber – one by the Parliamentary Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, on securing a more effective second house; the other by the Lord Speaker’s Committee – an inquiry into the size of the upper house (and one which unfortunately rejected in advance any suggestion of substantial reform– i.e. an elected Lords).
We submitted evidence to both – and have been joined by many others calling for genuine change and accountability for the upper chamber. (Here’s our evidence to PACAC and the Lord Speaker’s Committee if you’re interested).
Last Saturday we saw another unlikely voice for change speak up. Baroness Boothroyd – a former Speaker of the House of Commons (who opposed Lords reform proposals in 2011) – said it was time for the Lords to abandon its ‘medieval trappings’ as she called for a reduction in the number of peers in the Lords to a maximum of 450; curbs on the prime minister of the day awarding unlimited peerages for political services; for members to retire when they reach 80; and for the retirement of peers who seldom contribute to debates or votes. This is a significant and welcome contribution – and one that adds to the growing momentum for change.
And of course, all of this sits alongside huge spats brewing with the government over Brexit.
Whatever the case, more and more people are recognising the desire for reform. Sadly, some of the responses have ignored the elephant in the room – the fact that the public cannot choose or boot out politicians making laws that affect us all.
Either way, there are winds of change blowing around the Lords. They can only be ignored for so long.
Perhaps, after the exodus of most of the hereditaries in 1999, the ‘2nd stage’ of Lords reform is finally on its way.