23rd April 2012 Articles
This morning the committee of MPs and peers who have been studying the government’s draft bill for reform of the House of Lords publishes its report. After an unprecedented 30 meetings, hours of evidence-taking and comprehensive deliberation, the speculation and misrepresentation will be over.
On some points of detail, the committee was bound to differ from the Cameron/Clegg white paper. But what matters is a majority for progress on reform, against a self-interested minority who would set the Lords in aspic. Keeping things as they are does not strengthen the Commons, but weakens parliament as a whole. Indeed, if the present situation persists, public calls for the abolition of the second chamber may get louder. The British Social Attitudes survey has found one in five people sympathetic to closing the Lords down, some three times more than favour continuing with an appointed House.
Whatever opponents say, the status quo is not a realistic option. When the majority of hereditary peers were excluded in 1999, Lords’ membership fell to 666. By the last election, it had risen to 706 and today it is 786. If those on leave of absence resumed their seats, the figure would rise to 807.
Since the pace of party political patronage outstrips that of the grim reaper, an increase in the number of peers to well over 1,000 is inevitable. Each new prime minister seeks to balance up the number of loyal supporters. Blair created 162 Labour peers, while David Cameron has already appointed 47 Conservatives. At each occasion, the prime minister feels obliged to appoint peers from other parties, so Blair appointed 62 Conservatives and Cameron has elevated 39 Labour supporters.
The coalition agreement promised new appointments to reflect the last general election result. Yet to do this, the prime minister would have to appoint enough peers to raise the number to near 1,100, all without appointing a single additional Labour member. If he did so, there would be justified anguish that he was “stuffing” the place with loyal followers.
In international terms, this is all absurd. Britain is one of only three countries with a second chamber larger than the first (the others are Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso). Yet just as parliament has voted to reduce the size of the Commons from 650 to 600, the Lords swells.
Quite apart from the practical difficulties of office space and seats in the chamber, there is the lively issue of cost. Peers claim £300 a day – tax free – just for turning up. Far from being cheap, their allowances came to nearly £20m last year, more than double that claimed 10 years ago. Allowing an extra week of recess this Easter saved taxpayers some half a million pounds at a stroke. As the Lords’ membership rises, so does its price tag.
This might seem justified if the chamber could claim to be representative. It cannot. Of its members, 54% are from London and the south-east, there are more peers aged over 90 than there are under 40 and only a little over one in five are women.
For these reasons, all three major parties made manifesto commitments to reform the Lords. Since all parties are agreed, no coalition compromises are necessary. The public expect MPs to honour their promises, including those Conservatives who now wield the dubious threat of resignation from junior positions in government. If they insist on defying their constituents, the public is unlikely to miss them.
The government’s proposals, modified in the light of comprehensive and forensic scrutiny, are the best chance for reform of parliament since 1911. It may be difficult, but it is necessary to protect our parliament against calls for abolition of what is fast becoming the world’s most ridiculous second chamber.