Put the House in order: With the Lords remaining so large and corrupt, a radical transformation is needed to restore its prestige


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When it was a purely hereditary chamber, it used to be said that the best thing to do with the House of Lords was to leave it as it was or abolish it – but never try to reform it. Some years after the Blair government removed most of the hereditary element and the Lords’ judicial function was hived off to the Supreme Court, the effects of this half-finished reform are apparent. For all of the excellent work that its committees and members do, the Lords is too large, too corrupt and too unrepresentative. That is not a good place for any chamber in any parliament to be.

Soon we will see another bumper crop of freshly minted peers, some of them substantial party donors, taking their places on the red benches (only the SNP refuses to nominate). Whatever else, more peerages are not the answer. Yet the impetus for expansion seems unstoppable. Whereas for most of the last century the Conservatives had an in-built majority in the Lords (delivered, if necessary, by calling in some of the less conscientious from the grouse moors for a day out in London to vote), the position is now reversed, with a huge expansion in the numbers of Labour, Liberal Democrat and cross-bench peers in the upper house. So now it is Conservative ministers who are complaining about the will of the people, as expressed in a general election, being denied by an undemocratic, nowadays mostly appointed, body rather than Liberal or Labour ministers attempting social reform in the Edwardian era and the 1970s.

A convention was agreed to deal with this in the 1940s. It was, appropriately, a gentlemen’s agreement, reached between Viscount Addison, then leader of the Lords in the radical Attlee government, and his Conservative counterpart, the Marquess of Salisbury. Key legislation in a manifesto endorsed by voters, such as that which created the National Health Service, would not be opposed but might be amended; everything else was fair game. The Parliament Acts removed the Lords’ ability to meddle in economic policy. So the compromise rested.

But now some in the upper house – particularly the Liberal Democrats, now grossly over-represented – are trying to unpick the Salisbury convention. Yes, the Lords should preserve its role in defending democracy, civil liberties and human rights, as it did in the 1980s, when peers sought to prevent Margaret Thatcher from abolishing the Greater London Council. But this is difficult if the Government sees it as unconstitutional.

The natural instinct of any prime minister is to place reform of the Lords in the “too difficult” tray, yet a new House of Lords is not impossible to visualise. Removing the statutory right of Anglican bishops to make law seems one easy modernisation; some bishops could stay, but joined by leaders of other faiths.

We could also have the various devolved polities of the United Kingdom represented, either as an elected pseudo-Senate or, more true to its roots, as an ex officio agglomeration of interests. Thus, the mayors of English cities could attend ex officio, so, too, could the council leaders of major cities, plus delegations from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments and assemblies. One might even add a corporate element, with representation from the Trades Union Congress or the Confederation of British Industry, and delegates from public institutions such as the National Trust or from universities. Charities could also be granted a voice.

This would be a modern incarnation of the assembly that would have been known by medieval lords. It would lack proper democratic legitimacy but this would be a good thing if we wanted to avoid a clash with the Commons. Without the creation of a broad, constitutional convention, something radical is needed to restore the prestige of the upper house. Going back to basics might be it.