by Jonathan Roberts
For a hundred years discussion of the reform of the House of Lords has provided intrigue, gossip and occasional melodrama. The outrage at new proposals coming from the government backbenches rightly highlights how ‘out of touch’ this diversion from more pressing matters is (like, you know, the economy), but the depth of feeling some Parliamentarians have gives an indication as to why meaningful reform has never happened.
The most significant improvement in modern times came early in the Labour Government with the removal of the vast majority of hereditary peers. Even this change, which was so obviously appropriate, caused Tony Blair a huge headache. To impose genuinely radical reform will result in something closer to a debilitating migraine.
It is easy to forget that the current make up of the House of Lords was specifically argued against in the Parliament Act itself – where it is described that the current regime should be only a temporary measure until peer elections were fought. Bearing in mind that income tax, introduced by William Pitt the Younger, was supposed to be a temporary measure, one could be left with the impression that there is nothing more permanent in government than a system originally labelled as ‘temporary’.
But the parties should not race towards House of Lords elections. The UK is not suffering from an absence of democracy – quite the opposite, with parish, district and county elections every four years, European and parliamentary every five. Soon we will be adding mayoral and police elections to the mix and I have a sneaking suspicion American-style school boards won’t be far behind. This voting business is really rather regular – and with turnouts being as dire as they are, one has to question whether the public really is crying out for yet another dreary Thursday morning trip to the village hall.
The case for some kind of Lords reform, however, is overwhelming. Britain finds itself in the esteemed company of Burkino Faso and Afghanistan as the only countries where the upper house is larger than the lower. Our 800 Peers come at a price – some £108,000 each – and political consensus seems to be that 800 is just too big a number.
But before we march headfirst into a Cromwellian bonfire of the peers, first we need to discuss what it is that we want from a new House of Lords; only then can we build an upper chamber suitable to meet the needs of the country.
The House of Lords is there, principally, to scrutinise the work of Government. It can propose changes, forcefully if it desires, but has limited powers in forcing the House of Commons to change its mind. So if we accept that scrutiny is its key purpose, membership of the House of Lords should be reserved for those best placed to provide it.
In Britain, we have world-leading businessmen, economists, educators, scientists, artists, healthcare professionals and defence experts. These are people who entered the lower ranks of their profession and, through their own commitment and dedication, got to the top. Surely these are the people best placed to provide scrutiny of government’s work. If government introduces a policy to encourage job creation, surely giving a say to those who have spent their lives creating jobs could be useful? If government is reforming the NHS or our schools, surely giving a say to people who have spent their lives teaching and healing is appropriate? Government consulting with experts is helpful, but Lords reform should be about taking experts out of the consultation process, and into the heart of the legislative process. By only allowing those with a proven track record of delivering for Britain into the Lords, then it is Britain that will benefit.
The left often has difficulties with recognising the value of expertise, perhaps out of some unfounded fear that it is a secret plot to promote elitism. But expertise and success is the consequence of aspiration, and it is something to be respected. We can’t go on believing that having ‘values’ is an adequate alternative to actually knowing what you’re talking about. The truth about meritocracy is that expertise is gained through hard work and dogged determination, something with which the left can well identify. We should want meritocracy, not the current cronyism, to fill the red benches. But meritocracy does not always need democratic consent, and elections may not provide the pragmatic legitimacy we seek.
Elections to the House of Lords will invariably lead to a purely political chamber, and I do not believe the public wants more party politics, they would probably prefer less of it. It is action and sound policy they crave – and as even the humblest student of American politics will tell you, the fight between two deeply political houses of Congress invariably results in very little getting done.
The House of Lords is now essentially a retirement home for ex-MPs. As one friend put to me this week, ‘ex-MPs know how the system works and understand politics’ – yes they do, and that’s the whole problem. I don’t want Lords who know about politics, I want Lords who know about business, enterprise, job-creation and public service through the kind of expertise only a long and esteemed career can provide. Labour’s recent fetish for youth has resulted in an absence of, and almost disrespect of real senior-level experience and the wealth of knowledge that comes with it. Creating a new set of elections for the political class could risk replicating, not curing the problems of the divisive Commons.
So instead, let’s have a House of Lords, limited to 200 apolitical, whip-free crossbenchers made up of our most accomplished, knowledgeable experts from all walks of life – then we can have an upper chamber that does what it’s meant to – scrutinise the work of Government and improve our country through knowledge, not party politics.
Jonathan Roberts was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Thirsk and Malton at the last election