If we can’t have an elected House of Lords, at least make it representative

There is no prospect of an elected second chamber, so let’s go for a wholly appointed but fairly representative Upper House

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Their lordships will decide the destiny of the UK over the next few days, as Remainers look to the House of Lords to challenge the Government’s EU withdrawal bill. But how well is the upper house equipped for this role?

While many respected democracies, including Sweden and New Zealand, manage with a single legislative chamber, the case for a second chamber is generally well established in the UK. The arguments for a mechanism to allow for reflection on draft legislation, refining or, if necessary, delaying it, are widely accepted.  

But in the UK this important role is carried out by a huge and unwieldy body made up of mainly elderly and mainly white men. 

The House of Lords has no democratic legitimacy whatsoever. A few of its members owe their places to being descendants of the lieutenants of William the Conqueror. Others have been rewarded for services to later monarchs or, more recently, prime ministers and party leaders. Twenty-six members of the Lords are there as bishops of the Church of England. And many lords are there in recognition of outstanding success in some walks of life: the law, medicine, science, or business, or possibly less distinguished service in politics and public services.

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This does not sound like an efficient instrument for governing Britain in the 21st century, and yet no government has so far come up with proposals for reform which have attracted widespread support. 

Most proposals to reform the House of Lords centre on the idea of electing either all or a substantial proportion of its members.

But is the lack of a democratic mandate the real problem for a refining second chamber? The greater failing of the Lords is surely that it is unrepresentative of the population it is supposed to serve.

Over half the members of the House of Lords are over 70 with 20 per cent over 80, while only 4 per cent are under 50. Three quarters of peers are male and only around 5 per cent are from ethnic minority backgrounds. 

At the same time the House of Commons is drawn from an ever-narrowing range of backgrounds. The green benches are increasingly occupied by university-educated, political obsessives. There are still one or two ex-miners and captains of industry in the Commons, but not many. The typical MP of any of the main parties will have spent time as a special adviser or in a policy think tank. And there are signs that the House of Lords is going the same way, particularly with the “working peers” appointed by the main parties who are often recycled MPs or parliamentary candidates. This narrowing of the parliamentary gene pool would surely only be increased by electing the Lords.

To scrutinise and refine legislation produced by the House of Commons, and to act as a counterbalance, the membership of the Lords should compensate for the deficiencies in the membership of the Commons rather than amplify them. The second chamber should bring a different type of expertise to bear. We all praise the eminent scientists, doctors, and academics in the Lords but there are too few such voices. 

We need younger people in the Lords, more women, and more people from ethnic minorities. We also need people from growing, and underrepresented sectors of the economy, social entrepreneurs, and the third sector.

So how do we get the best people from those groups? The ballot box will not deliver this and, besides, the House of Commons must be the supreme legislature. An elected upper house might seek to challenge the democratic supremacy of the lower house. The best way to secure a second chamber that is representative of the people is to appoint it.

We should not feel squeamish about appointing people to important positions rather than electing them. We already have well-established mechanisms for selecting judges, ambassadors and senior civil servants (although these have often struggled with issues of diversity). But no one thinks less of the Chief Medical Officer or the Chief of the Defence Staff because they were not elected to their post. And Police and Crime Commissioners have hardly provided a ringing endorsement of the election route.

We already have an independent House of Lords Appointments Commission which recommends people for appointment as non-party-political life peers and vets nominations for life peerages, including from the UK political parties. We should build on this to create a mechanism to select the entire membership of the Lords afresh. The Lords Appointments Commission should have a strong remit to make appointments which are representative of the population. The Commission should, initially, be charged with producing a plan to get from the present 800-plus House of Lords to a smaller, more representative body.

As a first step, the 92 hereditary members and the 26 bishops should lose their places. The second stage would be the retirement of the oldest or longest serving peers to get the numbers down to a manageable number of below 500. We would then need a programme of new appointments to replace current peers who would be retired in tranches based on age and length of service. 

This route, rather than direct elections, would allow the upper house to make a contribution to the legislative process which is more representative of the people and also more effective for being so. It would both strengthen our constitution and make Parliament, as a whole, more effective.

Alun Evans is chief executive of the British Academy and Gerard Hetherington is a member of the British Academy’s Audit Committee. Both are former senior civil servants