Saturday 29 February 2020

Reform the Lords – but don’t create a dog’s dinner!

The revelation that peers claimed £23 million in expenses and attendance allowances in 2018-19 (an increase of almost 30% over the previous year) has coincided with a fresh call by the Electoral Reform Society for an elected upper chamber – but won’t this end up making things not better but much worse? Of course, the Lords as presently constituted is a scandal and, of course, radical change is long, long overdue; but would increasing the number of elected parliamentarians from 650 to around 1,300 really make this country more democratic – or simply entrench party control and fuel endless conflict between the two chambers as we see in Australia and the US?

One solution of course would be to be done with it and simply abolish the Lords. After all, New Zealand and Norway to name but two, get on perfectly well with a single chamber. But at this of all times, would it really be wise to sweep away a body which has, in a modest way, frequently proved a useful brake on hot-headed proposals from the executive? And is the process of refining draft legislation through open debate, the core function of the upper chamber, really of so unpolitical that it can simply be handed over to Civil Service lawyers?

So if making the Lords pretty much a copy of the Commons would be foolish and abolishing it altogether would be dangerous, the challenge is clear: devise an upper chamber which adds value, has clearly defined and limited powers, is independent of the executive and is democratic at least in the sense that it is representative of the population in a way that the present Lords can never be. Time for some fresh thinking from the ERS!