End of the peer show?

The Sunday Telegraph reported on Sunday that the Coalition Government are looking at the House of Lords being elected for 15-year terms on the basis of proportional representation.  This of course stands in complete contrast to the Coalition Agreement statement that:

“We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. … It is likely that this bill will advocate single long terms of office.”

Er, hang on.  That doesn’t sound much like news, does it?  Apart from the 15-year term thing anyway.  The story seems mainly to be playing to the ‘Tories are giving up treasured ideals to suit the fidgety Lib Dems’ narrative of the right-of-centre press. Today, though, there has been a call by peers to stop increasing their number.

These bring up the interesting question of the Lords and its (or their) future.

At the moment, the vast majority of peers have been given membership of the House of Lords for life by a prime minister, with the House of Lords Appointments Commission advising on the selection of Cross-bench (i.e. non-party) peers. There are also up to 26 Bishops in there, as well as around 90 hereditary peers elected from the 600 or so who used to be entitled to sit in the house.

Personally, I think that the Lords do a pretty good job.  It can vary, of course, with their often harsh and outdated opinions on homosexuality certainly do not help their image (or quality of work), while at the same it is worth noting that the decision to allow palmtop and tablet mobile devices in the Chamber was made in the Lords before the Commons.  Many of the peers are online, notably on Lords of the Blog.

The ‘expertise’ of the House is often exaggerated as a defining characteristic, but it is true that many of the people there are members precisely because they have been high achievers in previous (or parallel) careers – although with politicians it contains both high achievers and failed ministers.

The problem

The main flaw with the House, as I see it and as the Constitution Unit and some peers have stated (pdf), is that the model is sustainable – especially if the aim of appointments is to match the party proportions in the last election, .  After each election where the government changes hands (i.e. 1997 and 2010), a vast number of new peers are appointed. Cameron has appointed 117, Blair appointed around 90 in his first 12 months (70 in 1997, the rest in early 1998). At the moment, with 792 peers 44% are Labour, 40% Conservative and 17% Lib Dem (compared to a 2011 vote ratio of 33:41:26) – in addition to which there are Cross-benchers as well as Bishops and some others. With an average of 36 appointed each year and no real way to leave the House other than through death, the number is likely to keep on growing.  The CU paper suggests that over a thousand would be needed to make the ratios correct.

The paper does not deal with changes to an elected or part-elected house, but their suggestions (capping the number of peers, having a set ratio for selecting new peers to move towards proportionality and having an independent system to oversee it) could usefully feed into a larger-scale reform, with in-direct election.

A solution?

It seems that, rightly in my view, any largely-elected House (the general consensus seems to be to kep 20% appointed, presumably mainly Cross-benchers) will represent broad regions rather than small constituencies. This avoids duplicating the more directly-representative function of the Commons, but raises the question of who these new Lords will be.

Broadly speaking, I think that the current selection of peers works reasonably well. The house is fairly effective in amending legislation passed to it from the Commons – which is essentially its job, but which is undermined by its growing size, and this job should remain the focus of any reforms.

If the new fifteen-year-peers can be picked on a similar but more rationalised basis – e.g. an independent appointment system and not simply peerages for ex-cabinet ministers – then the House could (and I mean could, the House evolves constantly) retain its current useful role.  The risk will be that it might become a dumping ground for failed MPs (or, rather, unsuccessful candidates at Commons elections).

Perhaps a workable model would be to have 20% of Peers selected by the Appointments Commission to sit as Cross-benchers, say 80 of a 400-strong house (this is roughly the number who sit regularly now). One could add representatives of the major religions (and maybe ethics specialists?) numbering another 10 or 15, although this might be controversial and maybe simply 95 Cross-benchers would be better. Another five would be office-holders (Lord Speaker, etc), that would make 100, allowing 100 to be ‘elected’ every 5 years for three terms.

Each time there is an election, the new cohort could be appointed from party lists either directly in regions like the Euro-election, which would involve a specific Lords ballot, or indirectly through an independent appointment process, which could be based on votes for Commons or directly for the Lords. They could be selected in proportion to either a) the proportion of votes cast in that year’s vote or b) in proportion to the difference between the existing proportions of peers and the proportions of votes cast, depending on how direct the election should be.

That system, with parties centrally (or regionally, or a mixture) selecting peers appointed in proportion to votes cast in a ballot seems to me to approximate the current system in a reasonable and rational way. It could mean that the features of the House in terms of composition and role are retained, but that selection is given added legitimacy (albeit not with enough direct involvement to worry the Commons) and without the ever-increasing House that we have today.

This seems to me a good half-way point between direct election (as per Commons) and 100% appointment (as in the modern Lords, if we ignore the semi-elected hereditaries).

P.S. There are other ideas around out there: perhaps a public ballot like jury duty, with 100 or so  members of the public randomly selected each year and paid to work in the revising chamber for three years. This has some immediate appeal – it would certainly broaden the expertise and experience of the House – but is unlikely to get anywhere politically.

P.P.S. The subject-line for this post comes from an alternative title for Emma Crewe’s Lords of Parliament, which I’m reading and enjoying at the moment. I wish I had made it up, but I didn’t.

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2 Responses to “End of the peer show?”

  1. Ken Says:

    Surely the easiest solution is to make it easier to retire from the Lords, either with a mandatory retirement age or make it necessary to be reappointed after X years. That way we don’t have to worry about elections (I think that’s actually counter-productive in the British Parliamentary system – we have the precedent of the primacy of the Commons in the Parliament Act to resolve an impasse) but can keep the real benefits the Lords brings as an amending chamber. The ridiculous Labour filibuster aside, the Lords does its job better than any other second chamber in the world, as far as I can see.

    • aforlornhope Says:

      Yeah, exactly. I think that that is a major current concern (as explored in the CU document). My suggestion is generally a way that their suggestions on this and rationalised appointment could be made into a long-term solution.

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