We’re at a rare point in politics. There is almost a consensus on the need for change –to cut down the supersized House of Lords.
At the end of this month, a key Lords committee tasked to tackle the issue will make proposals for how to do that.
The only problem is this: they’ve ruled out the best way of reducing the size of the upper house.
On Tuesday, The Times reported that the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House will call for new peerages to have a 15-year time limit, and for the four main groups in the Lords (Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Cross-Benchers) to commit to reducing their size over time.
A few points have to be made here. Firstly, it’s welcome that peers now recognise the need the cut down the size of the upper house. At around 800 members, Britain’s bloated second chamber is crying out for change.
Not that the plans come from nowhere. Repeated scandals have led to huge pressure and public outrage – from peers themselves claiming it’s a ‘retirement home’ and ‘members club’ to claims of taxis being left running outside while Lords run in to claim their tax-free £300. Such is the scale of the mess, the Lords are having to clean their own stables.
Of course there are peers who take the job of scrutiny very seriously, working on committees and asking probing questions of ministers. These peers know their good work gets overshadowed by “club” approach many of their colleagues take and they want reform too.
But the proposed reforms avoid dealing with the real problem in the Lords – a total lack of democracy and transparency in how it is composed.
After all, the real public anger doesn’t come from the fact that the Lords is larger than the Commons, but the fact that it is packed full of party donors, political friends and former party staffers.
At the same time, the light-touch reforms only apply to new peerages, meaning any substantial reduction in size could take decades. And with it the risk that we are back into the kind long grass territory politicians prefer for the reform and modernisation of their profession.
What we’re left with then is sticking plaster politics – which would do nothing to stop Prime Ministers packing the chamber with party donors and political friends.
Then there is the question of representation: over half of peers are aged over 70, nearly half live in London and the South East, and – contrary to claims of independence – almost all vote solely along party lines. 15 year terms would do nothing to counter this.
There is a certain element of ‘what do you expect’ from these modest proposals. The Committee’s remit to mark their own homework explicitly excluded discussion of how the chamber is composed – despite electing a much smaller Lords being the most logical way of effectively reducing its size.
The result is recognition of a problem, but without a substantive solution. They have, for whatever reason,missed the point.
Because the crux of it is this: voters are sick of the Mother of All Parliaments being viewed as a members club for a small elite. And every time we look at it we find a compelling case for change.
Last month the ERS revealed that peers who haven’t spoken in the Lords for an entire year have claimed nearly £1.3m in expenses and allowances. That only happens because Lords know there is no redress – there is no way for voters to hold them to account. There is an urgent need for the light of democratic accountability in our upper chamber.
So often we see words but no action on Lords reform. And while these reforms should be implemented, they have to be seen as the first step towards the effective, accountable revising chamber the UK deserves.
Anything else risks looking like what the Lords already looks like: members writing their own rules.