The House of Lords has plenty of things going for it. It contains some of the greatest specialists in the country, and the quality of its ethical debates in particular is extremely high – as was demonstrated in Friday’s debate on assisted dying.
But that should not mean we ignore its problems. In today’s Daily Mail, there’s a report that Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are set to appoint another batch of new peers. Furthermore, Greg Barker and David Willetts are tipped to be “moved upstairs” after the election, a sign that there will be yet another rush on the ermine shops in the summer of 2015.
All of which means that the number of Lords is creeping closer to 1,000. As the paper reports:
‘Last summer, the three main parties appointed 30 more peers to the Lords, taking its membership to 836. Only China has a larger legislative chamber – in the form of the National People’s Congress.’
While it’s true that the Chinese Congress has almost 3,000 members, it only meets
once every ten years (correction) for two weeks every year, it purports to represent 1.4 billion people and it is, of course, effectively part of a one-party state. China gets away with it, but for the UK to have even a third of that number is simply unsustainable.
The swelling ranks are an outcome of the Lords’ confused role. On the one hand, the Upper House is meant to scrutinise legislation as a home of expertise; on the other, it is a tool for morale and political management in the Commons – convenient vacancies are created on the green benches by bumping MPs up, patronage (or the hope of receiving it) is extended to maintain party discipline, and partisan appointments are made in the hope of improving the chances for Government legislation.
Not only does the current appointments system mean there are too many Peers, but they do not always live up to the oligarchical principle which is meant to justify such a process. The Mail‘s description of many appointees as “cronies and failed politicians” is too often correct – we are meant to get experts, but a lot of the time we get party apparatchiks, trade union officials and the great and good from Whitehall and the media. For every great debate, like that on assisted dying, there are a dozen in which the prevailing ideological trends of our left wing establishment are recited as fact.
That even the ConHome team disagrees about how to reform the Lords is a sign of how sticky the issue is, and how hard it will be to resolve fully. (Personally I’d support at least some element of elected Peers, though others would not).
We do agree on a starting point, though: the numbers must be reduced to make the House functional. David Steel’s proposals to require members to commit to being active, working Peers or face expulsion and to introduce an age limit both have merit and would go some way towards fixing the problem.
It would certainly be a start – until other details are thrashed out, let us at least slim down the Lords so it can do the job.