Peering into the future

The Lord Speaker’s Committee is expected to publish a report later this month calling for a reduced number of peers. Not hugely original as many previous reports and inquiries have suggested that the House of Lords should be condensed in size. Why do the Government and Opposition persist in following the trend of previous administrations tinkering round the edges rather than implementing bolder reform of our second chamber? The Electoral Reform Society refer to the proposals as ‘hyper-cautious’ which is not a million miles off the mark.

The answer is relatively simple – no-one can really agree on what would be a better replacement and all political parties seem to benefit from the patronage system we have to over-fill the bloated Lords. So the tinkering continues, this time with the suggestion that Peers serve for a limited period of time, and that we operate a ‘two out one in’ approach – along the lines of David Cameron’s Red Tape Challenge. The latter is not a bad idea, as it reduces the opportunity for any Prime Minister to over fill the Lords with colleagues and supporters who are not elected to the Commons, but potentially denies some of the smaller parties a voice in our democratic process. However, a retirement age would have forced the likes of the experienced Baroness Williams out a long time ago, whilst keeping other Peers in place who play a very minor role in day-to-day proceedings in the Lords.

The House of Lords often receives poor press – clocking in and out, expenses scandals to name a few examples. But what about the expertise we have in the Lords, the ability to scrutinise legislation in far greater detail due to fewer time pressures, and the confidence we have seen in recent years to use their numbers and influence to challenge the government of the day on key issues? Never has this examination and analysis been more important than now, as vast tracts of legislation are passed through Parliament to implement our departure from the European Union.

The Lords, as an unelected chamber does need some form of legitimacy and support from the electorate, so perhaps reducing their numbers will help to achieve this. In the absence of any better ideas, perhaps this is the way forward which will still allow the UK to hold on to the positive aspects of the Lords without the negative connotations. One thing everyone appears to agree on, however, is that no action is simply not an option.