THE LONG-RUNNING debate about the future of the House of Lords has reignited this week, with proposals by the Labour Party to abolish it. It is a proposal that has been made before, but never followed through by Governments of any political colour. That is because, relatively speaking, getting rid of it is the easy bit. The harder part is deciding what to put in its place.
The current House of Lords is too large and has a membership derived largely from inheritance and political patronage, making it hard to defend in theoretical terms. Like other parts of the UK constitutional settlement however, it nonetheless does important and effective work in practice. I think it is a mistake in this debate to start with who is in the House of Lords, but rather to start with what we want it to do, before determining the most effective way to choose its membership to best fulfil its role.
The House of Lords is a revising Chamber, which means it scrutinises legislation which has generally already passed through the House of Commons, but which the Lords can debate at greater length and in more detail than the Commons has been able to. How a new law will actually work and how it will actually affect those it is directed at are hugely important considerations and, much as I would like to believe all of that is done effectively in the House of Commons, the truth is we rely heavily on the House of Lords to do much of it. That will be true of the Online Safety Bill, about which regular readers will know I care deeply, when it comes to consider it in the New Year.
In doing that work, the Lords debates, and therefore the legislation debated, benefit hugely from the views of experts of long standing in the relevant field. There are eminent scientists, former senior military officers and judges, business people and those who have made very significant contributions to charities or wider civic society. There will always be those who know what they are talking about to listen to when considering a new law. Trying to put this diplomatically, that will not always be the case in the House of Commons. Being equally blunt, if the House of Lords were to be replaced by a directly-elected Chamber, not all of those eminent people would find it attractive to seek election and, in effect, to become politicians. We would lose something very valuable in the making of the laws by which we all live.
However, there is a good argument for some change so, as the debate is back on, let me offer my own idea. I would seek to combine a form of election with the retention of the expertise that we need, and ask an independent Commission to draw up plans for a smaller Chamber made up of a certain number of representative groups with expertise in our society – a certain number of engineers, doctors, faith leaders, carers, and so on. I would then ask each of those groups to elect from among them those who would fill those places for set terms of office. They will be elected, but not in the same way as the House of Commons so the two Chambers do not come to cancel each other out as we see happen in other countries, but they should be seen to have more legitimacy to legislate than those appointed now. It is not a perfect solution – I suspect there is no such thing – but it would enable our second Chamber still to do the important work it does. In any event, it is definitely worth having the debate.