During every general election cycle, the question of Lords reform is brought up across the UK. Arguments have not changed much over the years; however, I believe the reasons to be against the reform have only increased. In this article I shall argue against the reform of the House of Lords.
After Tony Blair came to power in 1997, the upper chamber of Parliament was reformed. By 1999 House of Lords Act, the right to inherit a seat in the House of Lords was scrapped to all but 92 peers. Ever since, talks have been going on about the ‘next stages of reform’, to make the upper chamber of the Parliament an entirely elected body.
The supporters of the reform claim it will make the upper chamber more accountable to the public. Being directly elected, so the argument goes, will increase the legitimacy of the Lords. Some of those in favour of the reform claim that it is unacceptable in a XXI century democracy to have one of the two chambers of the Parliament completely unelected. Thus unelected, and by extension not accountable, peers do not have the legitimacy to pass the laws that affect the public.
However, having the upper chamber appointed enables people who are experts in their fields, but would not wish to participate in politics, e.g. army generals, doctors, teachers, judges, etc., to be brought into the parliamentary process. The advantage of appointing people and giving them life membership implies that they can act independently, as party whips do not apply to them. They will act to represent the public interest, rather than satisfying short-term political interests. In addition, peers have invaluable experience in their fields, which enables them to draft the legislation in the ways that House of Commons can never do. Most of the MPs have not had any experience outside of politics, and trusting them solely to produce the legislation without it being revised by the experts in the House of Lords is rather counter intuitive.
In contrast to the current system, if we had a fully elected upper chamber, most of these experts would not run for the office, and their experience would not be used. An elected second chamber would resemble the shortcomings of the House of Commons, and could possibly create a deadlock between the two Houses of the Parliament with no balancing effect. When both chamber are elected and come to gridlock on certain matters, who is going to resolve the situation? Such an elected second chamber could raise serious constitutional problems.
An alternative solution proposed by the reform camp suggests that we have a partly elected chamber, i.e. part of the chamber is still appointed, while majority of it is elected, e.g. 80% elected, 20% appointed. This is supposed to give the advantages of both chambers. On the one hand legitimacy of the House of Lords will be increased as 80% of it is elected, and in the meantime the expertise of the House of Lords will be preserved. However, I believe this is not the solution, as partly elected chamber will have even more shortcomings then either fully elected or fully appointed one. Questions raised will concern the difference in the legitimacy of elected and appointed Lords. In a dispute between elected and appointed peers who would decide the outcome? Here again, similar problems with constitutional arrangements may appear.
It is true that the House of Lords is unelected. However, this does not imply that the upper chamber is illegitimate. I believe one ought to make the clear separation between the roles of two chambers of the Parliament, and this difference lies in the concepts of input and output legislation. While House of Commons is responsible for the input legislation from the electorate, the House of Lords is responsible for the output legislation. The very idea of the House of Lords is that it serves the role of the revising chamber of the Parliament. While members of the House of Commons are responsible for representing the interests of the public and bringing legislation to the Parliament to reflect it, the House of Lords are responsible for drafting legislation and improving its quality. That is why they do not need to be elected to be legitimate.
The recent example of the effectiveness of the House of Lords in scrutinising the government is the tax credit cuts in the end of 2015. While it’s necessary to reduce the deficit and bring the economy back on track, it is vital to debate and improve every piece of legislation that is coming through. And it was these peers with great expertise in their field that rejected the proposal and forced the government to review their policies. This example once again outlines key role of the House of Lords and its importance in the effectiveness of the Parliament.
Apart form the House of Lords, only Her Majesty Queen can block legislation passed through the House of Commons. However, Her Royal Highness was kind not to exercise the power of Royal Assent (last time Royal Assent was refused in 1707 when Queen Anne refused Assent for a Bill about militia in Scotland). Thus House of Lords provides effective scrutiny and revision, which is so essential for the Commons, and that is why it should not be reformed.
By Ilham Mamedov
UCL Philosophy and Economics student
I will be happy to hear your thoughts and comments.