For longer than any of us can remember – for nearly 150 years, in fact – politicians have said that something needs to be done about that museum piece called the House of Lords. Occasionally a government has tinkered with it, as when the Labour government cut the number of hereditary peers to 92. But no government has taken a clear position on what the House of Lords is for, how many members it should have, and how those members are to be chosen. Consequently we still have this hotchpotch of a chamber, of indeterminate size, some of whose members are there by right of birth, some are ex-politicians in semi-retirement, and some are valuable additions to Parliament, appointed for their experience and expertise in other fields.
It is understandable why governments are shy of Lords reform. When the late Robin Cook attempted it, a decade ago, he could not find a way past the obstacle that while most MPs agreed that the Lords should be reformed there was no agreement over how it should be done. Even if the Commons made up its mind what to do, the legislation would then need to go to the Lords, where the old timeservers would inevitably try to block it.
Despite the problems, this is a nettle that must be grasped. David Cameron is in the process of reducing the House of Commons from 650 to 600. If 650 elected MPs are too many, then so by a very long way are 792 unelected peers. The draft proposals being drawn up in Nick Clegg's department are expected to recommend a chamber that is 80 per cent elected, 20 per cent appointed. Some will argue that it would be more radical and more democratic to make it 100 per cent elected, but the danger then is that those peers who bring real expertise to Parliament will disappear, to be replaced by people who are good at standing for election.
There will necessarily be a long, slow, process from the publication of the draft proposals in May to the day when old peers are actually told to pack up their ermine and leave, but the important thing is that it must happen. This is not so much a matter of dragging the Lords into the 21st century. Just getting them into the 20th century would be a start.