Geoff Hoon: Lords reform is long overdue. But elections could make us like Italy

The 'interim' measure of 1911 persists to this day


"The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, as hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; as absurd as an hereditary Poet Laureate." So wrote Tom Paine in The Rights of Man as long ago as 1791. Reform of the House of Lords is not a new issue. While this Government has made significant progress, successive governments have failed to resolve the matter. We are trying to reach a consensus on a way forward.

It is important therefore to acknowledge the areas where there is agreement. Most people agree that we should have two houses of parliament. Only smaller countries with homogenous populations seem to successfully operate a system with only one chamber. The important revising work of the Lords, improving legislation and bringing to bear expert and informed opinion on a wide range of topics, is acknowledged. Elected Members of Parliament take a strong line, illustrated most recently in an article by Gordon Brown, that the primacy of the Commons is of paramount importance. Similarly, there are few today who support the hereditary principle as a way of deciding who should make our laws.

Progress has been made. The majority of hereditary peers no longer legislate. Prime ministerial patronage has been reduced, transferring powers of appointment to other party leaders and the House of Lords Appointments Commission. But there is more to do. No one would suggest that the present House of Lords is the product of logic. It is a product of history, some might suggest an accident of history. The make-up of the Lords is irrational. No one drawing up a new constitution would construct an upper house in this way. But I recognise this has brought benefits.

It has prevented serious conflict between the two Houses. When there are disagreements, the unelected Lords should, in the last resort, give way. The powers of the Lords are, in any event, circumscribed by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. Since 1945, the Lords have generally voluntarily limited their powers further through the Salisbury Convention which holds that a proposal in the manifesto of a government party should be accepted as having been approved by the electorate, and therefore neither be rejected or changed out of recognition by the Lords. Until recently such conventions were regarded as having virtually the status of law. Recently, however, Liberal Democrat peers have decided, for reasons of their own, that they can abandon such conventions at will. This means we are in uncharted constitutional waters.

Yet without the hereditary peers we would have an all-appointed chamber. Such arrangements are understandably criticised. It does raise important questions of democratic legitimacy.

This has led to suggestions for a hybrid House where some members are appointed and some are elected. The track record of such hybrid arrangements is not encouraging. Members of the Scottish Parliament, where some are elected from constituencies and some come from a party list, complain about the difficulty of reconciling their different status. This was also the motivation behind the amendments to the Government of Wales Bill to prevent those defeated in constituency elections from being elected on a party list.

Having elected members in the Second Chamber, many of them probably politicians who were unable to get seats in the House of Commons, would change the entire nature of the legislature. We only have to look to other nations, such as Italy, to see there are real dangers in having two rival elected chambers at permanent loggerheads.

There has never been a consensus on how to reform the Lords. As long ago as 1911, the preamble to the first Parliament Act described it as an interim measure. That interim measure persists to this day. One of my predecessors, Richard Crossman, made clear in his Diaries that the main obstacle to reform was a lack of agreement on the powers and the composition of the Second Chamber.

The debate on powers could be resolved by making established conventions, such as the Salisbury Convention, legally binding to ensure the primacy of the Commons. This would have to be done by statute, and would be a complex process, but would assist in encouraging support in the Commons for changing the composition of the Lords. One thing is quite clear from the perspective of Members of the House of Commons. We must clarify and circumscribe the powers of the Second Chamber before deciding its composition if we are to achieve consensus among elected parliamentarians. And we must finish Tom Paine's unfinished business and end the anomaly of hereditary peers sitting in the upper chamber.

Geoff Hoon is Leader of the House of Commons

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own