(Photo: Democratic Audit)
By Owen Buchan – Regular Contributor
When it comes to British politics, media attention is often focused on the House of Commons. Votes on major bills are often televised with the highlights shown regularly on the news. Furthermore, the House of Commons is elected and thus the people have an impact on its composition. So, at a glance, it can appear that only the Commons is important, impactful or even worse; that it is the only legislative chamber in the UK. What seems to be neglected from the media spotlight is the upper of the two houses of Parliament; the House of Lords. The Lords has a very rich and interesting history and hosts as many traditional rituals as the Commons. Yet the House of Lords is incredibly problematic in a system that wants to be classed as a democracy. Whilst there have been recent reforms; they have failed to tackle the really big issues of the Lords. That of the cronyism, nepotism and lack of accountability present in the Lords. While it may be easy to call for the abolishing of the Lords in its entirety; this is realistically unachievable. Thus, keeping in-line with the great British political tradition of pragmatic and necessary reform; the time has come for the Lords to be fundamentally altered and become a second elected chamber.
The Lords is the second legislative chamber in Parliament. Thus, in certain ways its role is similar to that of the Commons: to create bills, scrutinise them and hold the government to account. Due to historical reform, the Lords is not as powerful as the Commons. The Lords is not able block a bill from becoming law but only delay it. This may seem odd, but this fact of the Lords really stems from a fundamental flaw with the Lords. The Lords are not elected, but appointed. This stems from its history, where the monarchy used to directly grant titles to nobles of their choosing. Currently, there are now three main ways one becomes a peer and each way is problematic for a democracy.
The first way into the House of Lords is to be appointed by the Monarchy on the advice of the PM. This is the most common way someone becomes a member of the Lords. They then serve for life and are called life peers, arguably highlighting the nepotistic aspect of the Lords. What often happens is that party elites or big party donors receive peerage as reward for their loyalty. For example, upon becoming PM, Boris Johnson was soon to have his brother made a life peer. Furthermore, PM’s will often ‘pack’ the Lords with their own people to tip the balance when it comes to the passing of legislation as there is no limit to the amount of life peers that can be appointed. Hence why we see nearly 800 members of the Lords compared to only 650 MPs in the commons, making it one of the biggest unelected political chambers in the entire world.
The second way to become a Lord is to be a Church of England Bishop, where 26 seats are reserved especially. Whilst admittedly 26 seats are not a lot, this is more an issue of principle and equality. In a supposedly multicultural and liberal state; it seems wrong for there to be given priority to one religious group in matters of legislation, especially in a society as multi-religious as modern Britain. To put it in a global perspective, Iran is the only other country to reserve seats in its legislature for members of a religious group.
The final way to become a Lord is to be born into it. Before the wave of reforms in the 90s, most members of the Lords used to inherit their titles. Thus, most members of the Lords came from historically wealthy aristocratic families. This changed in 1999; now there are only 92 hereditary seats. So now 92 members of the Lords will just inherit their seat from being born. Even if a family was to die out, the other hereditary Lords will elect a new family to take its place.
So, what we have seen is that the ways to enter the Lords is unfair. Aside from being undemocratic; a high level of nepotism, religious privilege and plain luck all show how flawed the Lords is. Another issue that is that of the pay. A lot of critics of the Lords point to this issue showing its importance. Lords receive £300 a day just for turning up, not specifically for debating or any other duties but just for turning up. In some extreme cases, there have been tales of Lords who’ve claimed £50,000 in expenses and haven’t participated at all. Ultimately, us as the taxpayer is paying for this. Furthermore, whilst some Lords won’t participate in their duty, they are more than happy to accept money from Russian businesses in return for political favours, as was revealed last year that Lord Barker of Battle received over £6 million from Russian oil company EN+, in exchange for politically lobbying in the U.S. Similarly, recent reports this year have revealed that multiple Lords have taken up prominent roles in Russian oil companies, all whilst continuing to act as ‘democratic’ figures in parliament.
So, the ideal vision of the Lords is shattered. Some see the Lords as a chamber of experts, who can expertly look at bills without the political pressure of an election looming like in the Commons. This is sadly not the reality. There is still some good news. Reform has been on the table. Tony Blair introduced major reforms such as the previously mentioned removal of the hereditary peers or the removal of the Judiciary from the Lords and the creation of the Supreme Court. Thus, we know reform is possible and achievable, but it is time to be bolder.
There are ultimately a few ways that reform could go. One suggested by Labour under Ed Miliband and carried on by some supporters would see the Lords become elected, like the US Senate. The number of seats and term length would be up for debate. This would give more power and choice to voters as they would get to elect two representatives and elections could be more frequent if needed. Another proposal that would be more currently beneficial would be to replace the Lords with something like a “Union Senate”. A chamber in which 25 representatives from the four nations of the UK would be elected to serve. This could help stem the tide of nationalism by finally giving an equal voice to all nations in the UK in matters of national government. These are just two potential solutions, but many more alternatives have been proposed.
Ultimately, the Lords is in dire need of change. The current political climate of Brexit and Covid has in some way put Lords reform to the back of the queue, with the Conservative party being characteristically hostile to Lords reform in general. Whilst this means that immediate reform is unlikely, as more information is revealed surrounding the corrupt influences of corporations and foreign nations into the chamber, the more demand will grow for even more reforms. For if the UK wishes to be the democratic bastion that many claim it to be, it must act to remove what many see as an undemocratic blight on its institutions.
BBC (2019) “Botham and PM’s brother to join House of Lords”. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-53606083
BBC (2014) “Elected senate would replace House of Lords under Labour”. Available at:
Jones, O (2019) “This broken House of Lords doesn’t need reform. It needs scrapping”. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/31/house-of-lords-reform-scrapping-peer-claimed-allowances
Murphy, Simon (2020) “UK report on Russian interference: key points explained”. Avlaible at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/21/just-what-does-the-uk-russia-report-say-key-points-explained
The Economist (2020) “Remaking the British state: A misguided counter-revolution”. Available at: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/11/19/remaking-the-british-state