Depending on what you think of our esteemed House of Lords, Gordon Brown’s timing in presenting his proposals to scrap the House of Lords could not have been better. Within 24 hours of his book-length report being released one high-profile peer was on her way out. To be more precise, she had “requested a leave of absence” to clear her name of serious allegations made against her. If you are one of those who believes our second chamber of parliament is long overdue for a clear-out you might think Mr Brown’s proposals were being vindicated even as they were being published. But are you? Perhaps you believe that the House of Lords may be imperfect but our form of democracy requires a second chamber to keep an eye on our MPs and we should probably stick with what we’ve got.
The departing peer was, of course, Michelle Mone – invariably styled in the tabloid press as Baroness Bra for having made her fortune in the world of women’s underwear. An investigation by The Guardian unveiled leaked documents alleging she had financially benefited during the Covid pandemic from her relationship with a company called PPE Medpro. It was awarded two government contracts worth £203 million to supply masks and medical gowns. Unusually, the company was only a few weeks old when it signed the first of these agreements. BBC News reported that millions of medical gowns the firm supplied, worth £122m, had never been used. Now she is being investigated by the Lords Commissioners for Standards over her "alleged involvement" in procuring those contracts. She denies it all, but the affair has helped focus attention on Gordon Brown’s report.
One of the most persistent criticisms of the Lords is the cronyism involved in the appointment of new peers. It’s the highest honour our system allows outside the monarchy. Reformers argue that, in the ideal world, peerages would be awarded only to those who had led a blameless life dedicated to serving the interests of their country. Sadly, the “ideal” world does not exist. Never has and never will. In the real world it is prime ministers who nominate new peers and, almost invariably, offer the ermine to those who have helped put them in power or helped keep them there. Interestingly, prime ministers who have left office, tend not to take ermine themselves.
In the words of one of the Lords’ most acerbic critics, Sir Simon Jenkins, “The most telling fact about the House of Lords is that not one living prime minister has deigned to darken its door. They know too much of its deals, kickbacks and cronyism to be reminded of them round every corner. Yes, there are impressive peers, but they are captives of a roughly 800-member club that has become the laughingstock of British democracy.” He points to the allegations against Michelle Mone, a Conservative, as being “all too common”.
Gordon Brown is, of course, one of those former prime ministers and his report has been welcomed by the man who may very well be our next, Sir Keir Starmer. It calls for the existing House of Lords to be replaced by a new chamber which would, in the jargon of the day, “level up” the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. For a report to be welcomed is one thing. Implementing its recommendations is quite another. Two of our most recent prime ministers – Tony Blair and David Cameron – also promised reforms which would make the Lords more democratic. What they delivered was pretty much what every prime minister has delivered over the decades. In the words of Sir Simon, they “honoured their cronies”. They recognised the reality. “The raw fact, he says, “is that Lords membership is a potent loyalty weapon in any party leader’s pocket.”
What Sir Keir has promised if he does make it to Number Ten is the “biggest ever transfer of power” from Westminster to local and regional government with additional devolution for Edinburgh and Cardiff. That’s something to which most senior politicians pay lip service. Delivery is another matter. So is the promise that have been made over the years to make the Lords more representative of “the people”. In most respects it could scarcely be less representative. The average age in this country is just over 40. The average age of members of the House of Lords is 71. And 91 of them are hereditary peers: they owe their seats to their birth.
Even the sternest critics of the Lords accept that there is a role for a second chamber – if only to cast a beady eye over what the government of the day is getting up to. Many say we could take a leaf out of America’s book and give greater powers to the Commons select committees. They should be able to subpoena witnesses and hold formal public hearings.
So this is one of those debates where you don’t have to go far to find critics of what Sir Simon described as a system in which the nation’s voice is “obscured by the language of aristocracy in a plush retirement home in the metropolis.” He says Gordon Brown is right: “The prime purpose of a second chamber should be, as it is in almost every parliament abroad, to reflect the diverse union that comprises most nation states. This is especially urgent in a union which, in Britain’s case, remains almost terminally unstable.”
Where he takes issue with Brown is his belief that the chamber should be directly elected: “This would clearly challenge the democratic standing of the Commons. Worse, it would strengthen the patronage base of the big parties and their leaders, precisely what afflicts the present Lords. Political parties must lose ownership of the second chamber.”
He wants the Lords to be replaced by a “council of the people” which would be formed of indirectly elected leaders of the nations, counties and cities, as well as representatives of local interests – industrial, professional, cultural and academic. The council could not directly influence legislation but its motions “might require a formal Commons response. At the very least, such a senate would offer parliament a refreshing alternative voice and stand much to Starmer’s credit.”
So how do the more thoughtful members of the Lords respond to all this criticism? One of them is the Times writer Daniel Finkelstein who was offered a peerage by David Cameron ten years ago. He confessed this week that he had his doubts about being part of an unelected legislative chamber and he admitted that it has “reduced my objectivity”. He also accepts that the Lords needs reform. Badly.
What worries him most is what he calls “the quality of its members”. If they are not elected, then the prime minister who appoints them has to show integrity and restraint but, he says: “Perhaps these qualities could once have been relied on but it is obvious this is no longer the case.” He would prefer the system in Canada where an appointments commission interviews appropriate candidates and gives the prime minister a list.
In that case, why not let the people choose? Why not elect them? That, he says, would be a very bad idea which the whole country would regret for decades and regret badly. That’s because we do not have a written constitution and an elected chamber would inevitably extend its powers. That, he says, would mean we “would quickly find government extremely difficult to conduct”. And that’s why only about a third of the world’s democracies have wholly and directly elected second chambers.
So what do you think? Are you reasonably happy with the way the Lords does its job? Do you worry that if we abolish this lot and elect a new chamber we might end up with yet another bunch of ambitious politicians and lose the older, wiser heads who have made a success of being scientists or academics or even artists and bring a different perspective to the deliberations? And might an elected second chamber end up becoming too powerful?
Do let us know what you think.