The Coalition has a huge amount of work to do. The priority must be to correct the appalling economic legacy left by Labour. Serving on the Finance Bill, that is something I have recently seen in action on a daily basis. Education needs real reform to set schools free and improve standards. The NHS requires an overhaul to improve it and protect it for the future. International development is important to ensure we play our part in the world but more importantly to safeguard our national security. We have started the huge job of turning around the welfare juggernaut, replacing it with a simpler and fairer system where it pays to work rather than stay on benefits. Localism has entered the political lexicon and the new legislation will empower local communities. I could go on.
So, why would anyone advocate it is also time to look at reform of the House of Lords? The British public has overwhelmingly rejected changing our voting system, indicating they support the status quo. Some will argue that this means there is no desire for constitutional change. Does that mean any thoughts of parliamentary reform should be shelved and that these institutions are perfect?
Our Mother of Parliaments is the envy of many across the globe but that does not mean we can sit back and assume nothing should ever change. We have reviewed the size of the House of Commons, reducing it by fifty members and commenced a fundamental review of constituency boundaries. It would also be right to review the composition of the second chamber. Tony Blair introduced half-hearted reforms, saving ninety hereditary peers to avoid a constitutional conflict. In doing so, he solved nothing.
The House of Lords is too large, with over seven hundred members, many of whom seldom attend. It is unacceptable that the average voting attendance is only one-third of the total membership. Around half seem to play no active role within Parliament; this ridiculous situation cannot be justified. It’s time to reduce it in size to no more than four to five hundred members. It’s time to remove the last of the hereditary peers. It’s time to say thank you and goodbye to those members who do not contribute or attend. We need members willing to play an active role in scrutinizing government and reviewing legislation and they need to fulfill that role to remain a member.
I should be clear though; I do not believe a fully elected chamber is viable. There are plenty of cogent arguments about legitimacy and whether the House of Commons or the House of Lords would have a clearer mandate, if both were elected. Many seem to advocate a chamber with 80% of its members elected. I disagree. We need to maintain a majority of appointed members and supplement this with a smaller number that are elected.
The appointed members may well include some of the current hereditary peers if government felt they were an important contributor. This would also not dilute our countries ability to regard contributions to public life by awarding peerages; we could simply have peerages without right to sit in the House of Lords (like many hereditary peers) and then another type of peerage that does come with the right to sit in the second chamber of Parliament. Appointed peers may even have limited appointment periods, after which they may keep their title but not necessarily be entitled, to remain entitled to sit in the second chamber.
The strength of the House of Lords is the wide variety of experience and expertise of its members. This benefits both government and opposition. Think of the former ministers who have centuries of departmental and policy experience between them and still have a desire to contribute to public life. Then there are those with successful careers in the arts, business, science and so many other areas, their opinions and expertise enriches the political debate. Neither group is likely to want to endure a party selection process and a subsequent election. In a wholly elected chamber, we could lose their talents as a result.
It is true: this is predominantly a Westminster village issue; it doesn’t excite or concern most voters. However, if we are serious about modernising Parliament, that reform must not stop in the House of Commons. We have the opportunity to reinvigorate the House of Lords and make it relevant to the whole nation. It’s an opportunity too good to be missed.