This week’s scandal surrounding four Labour members of the House of Lords – "cash for amendments", "peers for hire" or "Ermine-gate" as it is variously being branded – has prompted discussion among the commentariat as to whether it is time to reform the House of Lords (and for "reform" we should generally read "elect").
This morning, a leader in the FT suggests that a fully elected second chamber – as backed by MPs in 2007 – remains "the right way forward".
Mary Riddell in the Telegraph agrees:
"Move to a fully elected chamber, with peers nominated for their expertise and paid a salary. Drop the titles; Lords and Ladies belong in Shakespeare, or on grouse moors. Fulfil a Labour promise first made in 1967: don’t replace the last 92 hereditaries when they die. Get rid of the bishops (a move first attempted by the Commons in 1836) on the basis that the Church should have no formal role in the legislature."
The Conservatives have long made made noises – though often half-hearted – about a more democratic House of Lords. In 2007, David Cameron voted in favour of an 80%-elected second chamber, but, as Fraser Nelson points out in today’s Spectator, it would by no means be a priority for a Cameron premiership:
"Being able to appoint Lords has its uses for him, too. There is the small matter of the as yet un-nobled Stanley Fink, the billionaire who has kindly agreed to be Tory Treasurer. And Mr Cameron is expected to follow Mr Brown’s lead in appointing what the Prime Minister memorably called a ‘government of all the talents’ or ‘goats’ — outsiders brought into his government. Being able to offer ermine is a powerful negotiating tool when seeking to hire outsiders on a Whitehall salary."
Whilst the House of Lords rules should be changed to make peers subject to the same kind of sanctions as MPs if they are found to have abused their position, I have long believed that electing the second chamber would be unwise.
The current set-up may not be democratic and I accept that if you
were setting up the system from scratch today that a wholly appointed
chamber would be an unlikely starting point.
But overall, I believe the current House of Lords is not broken – and therefore doesn’t need fixing.
Being unelected means that there are not permanent clashes with the
Commons over who has a superior mandate – yet not having to be
accountable to electorates (or necessarily to party whips) enables
their Lordships to vote in a wider general interest.
And the sheer wealth of expertise and experience across all fields
of life there contributes massively to Lords debates and scrutiny of
legislation. There are many, many members of the Lords who would not
dream of putting themselves up for election – the former Cabinet
ministers, ex-permanent secretaries, army chiefs etc – but whose
presence there is extremely valuable.
I hope that whatever the outcome of the investigations into the
scandal of the moment, David Cameron will not be pressured into
committing the Conservatives to changing the Lords in a way that will
be detrimental to Parliament in the long run.
If he does form a government after the next election, as we hope he
will, there will in any case be far bigger priorities in his in-tray
than meddling with the House of Lords. He will, however, need to
appoint a new raft of Tory peers, which is why ConservativeHome has
been seeking your suggestions as to who he should nominate.