Like all of God’s earthly creation, the House of Lords is imperfect. Its powers, its composition and its legitimacy have all come in for severe criticism over the years, from different parts of the political spectrum. There have been several major reports, a Joint Committee and numerous votes in Parliament in recent years. The result has been a lot of disagreement, and no change.
It has now been reported that — as prefigured in the Coalition Agreement — the Government will publish a Bill at the end of May to bring in an 80% elected Upper Chamber of 500 or so using Proportional Representation. “Senators” would apparently be elected in thirds every five years.
People will differ over the merits of this and other possible models. The question is, should an elected House of Lords be a priority right now? To answer it, what we need are non-partisan arguments, arguments that ignore party politics and just look at the merits of the issue in the current context.
From this viewpoint the answer is pretty clearly No.
Here are five non-party-political reasons why not.
1. We are still in a huge economic mess, dealing with a massive inherited debt and structural deficit, with major international commitments in Afghanistan and Libya.
2. An 80% elected House of Lords would significantly increase the cost of government at a time of national austerity, since the new elected (and non-elected) Senators would need to be paid. Enough said.
3. The new House of Lords would quickly become much more politically partisan, at a time when we need unity of purpose and constitutional clarity. The recent tussle in the Lords over AV, when Labour peers filibustered in the chamber, shows the shape of things to come. Senatorial candidates might well disavow political affiliations before elections, but they will still need lots of volunteers pounding the streets in order to get elected. This is what happened under Presidents Adams and Jefferson in the early American Republic.
4. There would be a significant loss of expertise in the new Lords over time. Earlier this month there was a Lords debate on Libya and the Middle East, in which the speakers included two former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, a former Chief of Defence Intelligence and former Secretary General of NATO. This level of experience and expertise could never be matched in the Commons. It is highly unlikely that just 60-80 non-elected Senators would suffice to replicate it in a reformed Lords, given all the other areas in which expertise is also needed.
5. The new Lords would become less, not more, diverse over time. There are lots of older people in the House of Lords. But on every other measure the Lords is more representative of different parts of British society than the Commons: more women, more people from ethnic minorities and different religious groups, more people with disabilities. These voices would be squeezed out over time, unless maintained by some quota system.
Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will want to add another reason. We have had two major political-constitutional bills already in this session. The new Bill will consume huge amounts of parliamentary time, time needed for substantive legislation — on police commissioners, health, welfare — directly relating to the central social and economic reforms of the Coalition Government.
As Ed Miliband will be well aware, MPs on the government side will be re-elected for dealing with these problems, not for House of Lords reform. In the four years I’ve been on the doorstep in Herefordshire, no-one has ever raised the issue of House of Lords reform.
But ignore this point. Just focus on the five apolitical reasons given above: irrelevance to the economic mess we’re in, increased cost of government, more partisanship, less expertise, less diversity. They make a formidable case for delaying this legislation.