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There is significant public support for overhauling the House of Lords in a way that is almost never discussed in political debate, according to a newly published poll.
YouGov, commissioned by the Sortition Foundation – a social enterprise which campaigns for greater use of citizens’ assemblies – has shed some new light on public opinion regarding Lords reform. The Foundation helps organise citizens’ assemblies – such as the UK Climate Assembly, Scotland’s Climate Assembly and the Global Assembly, to name a few of the more than 100 assemblies it has supported.
The UK’s second parliamentary chamber is currently packed with life peers appointed by prime ministers, as well as more than 90 hereditary peers and dozens of bishops.
Labour is weighing up proposals from former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown to overhaul the Lords to make it more democratic and accountable. Under Keir Starmer, the party has said it is committed to reform towards the end of its first parliamentary term if it is elected next year – though it is not clear what model for reforming the Lords the party might adopt.
Typically, the debate is about moving to an elected second chamber – for instance, using a proportional voting system to more fairly reflect how the public vote than under the Commons’ winner-takes-all ‘First Past the Post’ system. Others suggest an ‘indirectly’ elected house, whereby council leaders or regional mayors would fill a new Senate of the Nations and Regions.
The latter idea stems largely out of fears of a directly-elected second chamber simply replicating the House of Commons, or ‘worse’ in their eyes, having more legitimacy and therefore power over MPs.
But the Sortition poll adds another option for the first time: replacing the Lords with a permanent citizens’ assembly made up of ordinary people, reflective of the UK population.
Out of the options presented for the future of the Lords, this was the most popular with 23% of public support. The idea came top among all major party supporters (bar Liberal Democrats, who marginally prefer an elected second chamber).
It indicates a significant interest in the potential of sortition – a process similar to the use of juries in criminal trials. But it is an idea that is almost never discussed when it comes to Lords reform.
This is despite citizens’ assemblies having been used to great effect, with the citizens’ assembly Parliament held on climate change spurring it to declare a “climate emergency”.
The second most popular choice, at 18%, was an elected chamber; while 13% of respondents chose to support the complete abolition of the House of Lords. Just 10% backed an appointed chamber (with hereditary peers removed); and an equal proportion (10%) stated that they would prefer Lords to remain as it is. Only 13% of Conservative respondents backed the status quo.
The idea of a house of regions made up of indirectly elected members, appointed by regional or local government, received even less support – attracting only 5% of respondents.
It must, though, be noted that a big chunk of respondents (21%) were unsure about the best way to reform the Lords – indicating that public opinion on this complex issue remains diverse and not yet crystallised.
A spokesperson for the Sortition Foundation said: “The political class seems out-of-touch with the lives and reality of everyday people like you and me. With the cost of living continuing to rise, and the daily struggle to make ends meet a reality for many of us, it’s obscene that over £100 million a year of taxpayer money goes on the House of Lords.
“[It] looks like a retirement village for out-of-date, expired politicians, or the drinks-lounge for the fat-cat donors of political parties, or a relic of the antiquated days when seats in government were a birthright.”
They added that a new House of Citizens would be selected by “democratic lottery” so that everyone has an equal chance of being chosen to serve. “A House of Citizens would be representative of the whole UK – our friends, family, shopkeepers, teachers, doctors and nurses would make the key decisions about how we live together, and they would hold our politicians to account,” the spokesperson added.
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While juries are a established model in the criminal justice system, permanent citizens’ assemblies are now taking root too – they have already been set up in Belgium, Paris, Newham and Melbourne.
There also now appears to be a strong appetite for an overhaul of the second chamber, following decades of lobbying and expenses scandals; and the increasing use of peerages as political gifts for associates of prime ministers.
So perhaps it’s time to throw a new idea into the mix: a House of Citizens.
The survey was conducted using an online interview with members of the YouGov Plc GB panel of 185,000+ individuals who have agreed to take part in surveys. More than 2,000 people took part, with weighting to ensure the results were reflective of the public. It was conducted on 18-19 April 2023
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