Solving the House of Lords Problem
John Lubbock speaks to parliamentarians about how the Upper House could be reformed to reflect the modern age
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The House of Lords is the Gordian Knot of British constitutional reform; a problem that almost everyone agrees needs to be fixed, though nobody can figure out how. Both Tony Blair and Nick Clegg had a go at it, with mixed success – and the question remains: is it too difficult to solve?
As of March 2022, there are 766 members of the House of Lords, while 92 of those members are ‘excepted hereditary’ members. Labour’s 1997 manifesto promised “the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended” – yet they still exist, 23 years after Lords reform.
When the 1999 reforms took place, threats by Conservative peers to hold up all legislation due to their opposition to the proposals led to a deal between Viscount Cranborne, the Conservative leader in the Lords, and then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Labour agreed to keep 92 hereditary peers, most of them Conservatives.
“Blair was completely hoodwinked by Cranbourne who persuaded him that, unless he made concessions, he’d never get it through the Lords”, Liberal Democrat Leader in the Lords Dick Newby told Byline Times.
When a hereditary peer dies, there is a by-election to replace them. This process has become at times embarrassingly undemocratic, with just a handful of electors voting from among their colleagues to fill the vacant place.
This position was supposed to be a temporary one, but when options were laid before the House of Commons for a fully reformed Upper House in 2002, MPs could not make up their minds on the final make-up of the chamber. Then the Iraq War began; reform was stalled and eventually forgotten.
“It got put into the ‘too difficult’ category,” Lord Newby concluded.
Fast-forward to the Coalition Government years of 2010 to 2015, and the Lib Dems made Lords reform one of their main targets, along with electoral reform.
In the end, they got neither – and lost 80% of their MPs to boot. The party’s leader during this period, Nick Clegg, proposed Lords reforms that would have seen peers elected on a regional basis, sitting for a single term of 12 years with elections every six. Again, the bill failed when Labour and backbench Conservative MPs voted against it.
While many agree that the House of Lords is an imperfect system, nobody can agree on what a better system would look like.
There is still an expectation that peers are ‘the great and the good’ – often independently wealthy – and so shouldn’t take a salary, while only claiming moderate expenses.
Byline Times recently examined the peers who rarely attend, including Lord Evgeny Lebedev, who only attended the Lords on one day between becoming a peer in December 2020 and August 2021.
As well as the remaining hereditary Lords, there are also 24 Church of England Bishops who sit in the Upper House, making the UK one of two countries with legislative offices reserved for clerics. The other is Iran.
Removing the hereditary peers was meant to get rid of the unprofessional, work-shy Lords and – while there are far fewer of them – they have not totally gone away.
Many peers like the ambiance of the Palace of Westminster and, while it’s not known for fine dining, taking guests to its restaurants is a way for some peers to show off their status.
In the Long Grass
There are currently five private members’ bills seeking to reform parts of the House of Lords, introduced by members of both the Conservative and Labour parties. None of these has much chance of becoming law without Government support.
“On five occasions I’ve introduced a private members’ bill to end the by-elections for hereditary peers,” said Lord Bruce Grocott, a former Labour Chief Whip in the Lords. “There are always by-elections pending and there’s one pending at the moment.”
Lord Grocott only proposed the limited reform of removing the last hereditary peers when they die because “all attempts to have ‘all singing, all dancing’ reforms to the House of Lords have failed. The ones that have succeeded have focused on a specific issue.”
“To try to get a majority when it’s covering everything from the method of elections to the frequency of elections to the eligibility of candidates… unfortunately it’s like trying to write a constitution,” he told Byline Times. “The capacity to foul up a complete parliamentary system, if not two, is overwhelming.”
Lord Grocott’s comment about rewriting the constitution is important. The UK has no written constitution, but institutions such as the monarchy and the House Lords are part of an unwritten constitution glued together by hereditary privilege, convention, patronage and money. Try to change this unwritten system and you will quickly meet with opposition from those who benefit from it.
“I know how difficult it is to get a private members’ bill through”, Lord Grocott said. “I’ve got about 10 or 15 resolute opponents in the Lords, and the thing that makes it easy for them is, the longer you make a bill, the easier it is to sink it.”
One of Lord Grocott’s opponents is Malcolm Sinclair, Earl of Caithness. For his part, the earl says that he is “not opposed to reform”.
“In fact, I want more than Grocott wants,” he said. “I don’t want a totally appointed chamber in the hands of the Prime Minister. The problem is everybody wants reform but there’s very little common ground. I feel the time has come that we had an elected house. I don’t like the appointments system.”
Another MP who has a private members’ bill seeking to reform the Lords is Conservative MP Paul Maynard.
“There are so many disparate views as to what should occur next and indeed what the end point should be,” Maynard told Byline Times, maintaining that he wants to stop by-elections to replace hereditary peers, at the very least.
He said that “many of my more thoughtful colleagues agree with me” on Lords reform.
For Maynard, reform of the Upper Chamber is “not top of anyone’s agenda and maybe it shouldn’t be”. “But one analysis is that, ever since the early Blair years, we’ve tinkered with the constitutional balance in this country without ever taking a step back and looking at the picture overall,” he added.
Maynard’s bill argues for “some form of directly elected senate”, in which the members have “an inferior mandate” compared to the Commons, elected under an Alternative Vote system.
Unfortunately, “there’s very little appetite at all” in the Conservative Party for these sort of changes, but Maynard has tried to make the point to his colleagues that “future governments of differing persuasions might try to institute far-reaching constitutional reform and we might want to consider whether we should pre-empt that”.
“Politics is partly about planning for the long-term as well as dealing with today’s headlines,” he added.
It appears that there is more appetite for Lords reform among Conservatives at the moment, given that they are having trouble winning some votes in the Lords.
According to Conservative hereditary peer Lord Charles Crathorne, “there does need to be Lords reform” because “one of the problems relating back to voting is that the Government finds it almost impossible to win votes. There is a big discrepancy between the number of Lib Dem MPs and peers”.
At the moment, however, it appears that Labour has also kicked Lords reform into the long grass, with Keir Starmer having abandoned a pledge, made when elected as leader, to pursue it. But the issue will not go away.
It promises to keep lurking in the background, much like our unelected peers moving through the corridors of Britain’s Upper Chamber of power.
This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.