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If replacing the UK’s House of Lords was simple, it would have happened long ago. The arguments for reforming parliament’s second chamber are powerful. Its patronage system begets cronyism and worse. Filled with appointees, political apparatchiks, party donors, 26 Church of England bishops and more than 90 hereditary peers, it is a democratic outrage. It is elderly, geographically and demographically unrepresentative and, with nearly 800 members, it is far too large.
It is also weak. It can delay legislation but cannot ultimately defy the elected Commons. Yet this weakness is why it survives. The Lords, which returns from summer recess this week, also does vital work as a revising chamber, and does it well without threatening gridlock. Its debates are infinitely superior to those in the Commons and it offers a way to parachute ministerial expertise into parliament. Yet, as recent furore over Boris Johnson’s and Liz Truss’s honours lists show, it is being abused as a place of patronage. Both rewarded political allies and advisers with peerages. But while all see its flaws, it endures because there is no consensus on how to replace it.
Sir Keir Starmer has committed his Labour party to replace the existing Lords with an elected chamber, but his resolve has recently appeared to waver. There is talk of “interim” reform. Some changes are easy to envisage and support. The 92 hereditary peers need to go. Birth cannot entitle one to a place in a legislature. Other options include time limits or a compulsory retirement age, and a “one in, two out” policy to reduce its size. The automatic seats for bishops should also be scrapped or at least reduced.
Beyond such reforms, accord soon breaks down. A report for Starmer by Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, recommended replacing the Lords with a smaller elected Assembly of the Nations and Regions to improve geographic representation, with a specific remit and powers to protect the UK’s devolution settlement and reject laws changing the constitution.
Any discussion on the future shape of the Lords needs to start not with a debate on membership but with absolute clarity on its purpose and its powers. The Brown report offers some of that purpose but falls short on the issue of powers and looks too driven by his desire for a new wheeze to stave off Scottish independence, though it is unlikely to satisfy separatists without spending powers or the right to initiate legislation.
Aside from the role in protecting devolution, Brown proposed largely similar powers to now. Yet in calling for the chamber to be elected and at different times to the Commons, he has created the conditions for it to challenge MPs’ supremacy by claiming greater legitimacy. Precise rules will be needed to avert that.
There will also be a clear loss to its essential revising role as experienced legislators are replaced with aspiring party hacks. If it is seen merely as a stepping stone to the Commons, it will fail in its central mission, especially if reform also means the loss of independent and often expert crossbenchers. There is also an argument for giving seats to elected mayors and leaders of devolved parliaments. But all debate on its future must start by recognising, safeguarding and ideally strengthening its primary job as a revising chamber, fixing poor legislation.
The time for an appointed chamber is clearly past but the next steps must not be rushed and ought to command cross-party agreement. If elected, Starmer should bring forward his interim reforms while still making clear that the commitment to an elected chamber is non-negotiable. Whatever the complexities, it is time to consign unelected legislators to history.