Andrew Taggart and Samuel Emery are Members of the Bow Group’s Home Affairs, Political Reform and Democracy Policy Committee
Today, the Coalition government will publish proposals for a fully or mainly elected House of Lords. These proposals will be the latest addition to an ever growing body of literature on Lords reform. However, these ‘reforms’ will not be reforms by any ordinary standards. If implemented, they will in essence amount to the abolition of the House of Lords as we know it, and will replace it with a very different beast altogether; our very own elected Senate.
What we really need are targeted reforms (in their true sense) which will build on the existing strengths of the Lords. By way of analogy, if we puncture a tyre on our bicycle, the logical step is to repair it, or at worst, replace the tyre. Most of us would not consider replacing the entire bicycle; especially if the new one, beyond its glossy exterior, was poorly designed, more expensive and of worse quality than the one we currently own. It is really a matter of common sense, yet this in effect is what the coalition is proposing.
In our paper, “Towards an Effective Second Chamber” backed by Conservative peer and constitutional expert, Professor The Lord Norton of Louth, we argue that the election of peers will actually hinder the way in which the Upper House operates. Aside from vastly increasing the running costs of Parliament as a whole, elected peers will have less time or inclination to scrutinise legislation, and will certainly be less effective in holding the Executive to account.
It is also fair to assume that an elected Upper House will also mean the birth of a second tier of professional politician. Surely this is not what we want? What is good about the current system is not only that peers are generally experts in their respective fields, but over a quarter do not take a party whip (ensuring some modicum of independence). This could all be lost if we, as a party, do not remain true to our Conservative values.
However, we have not been stuffy in our approach. While we applaud the House of Lords for its great work, we also realise that it could be made more effective. With this goal always firmly in mind, in our paper we have recommended:
- placing the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory footing, and giving it the power to appoint all peers;
- introducing around a dozen new cross- departmental Select Committees to support the workload of the Commons Select Committees and enhance the capability of the Lords to scrutinise Government policy and legislation;
- the introduction of 10 year term limits for newly appointed peers, renewable on up to two occasions at the discretion of the Appointments Commission;
- placing a statutory cap on the size of the Lords so that it cannot exceed the size of the Commons;
- making it easier to discipline and expel peers;
- introducing provisions for voluntary retirement of peers;
- strengthening the powers of the Lord Speaker to better regulate the House, particularly at oral questions; and
- removing the automatic right for hereditary peers and the Lords Spiritual to sit in the House of Lords.
It is our hope that the Prime Minister realises that the future composition of the House of Lords is too important to give as a concession to our coalition partners; when it is fundamental to our law-making process, effective government and the quality of our democracy. In the true long-term interests of the Party, and indeed the Nation, the Prime Minister should kick these misguided proposals into the long grass where they belong.