The Houses of Parliament are just that – Houses. Plural. There’s not just one body sitting in Westminster all day. Yet, we hear next to nothing about the House of Lords, the upper chamber of our Parliament. While coverage is taken over by the more powerful House of Commons, the Lords plays a vital role in the legislative process also. But it’s becoming increasingly unable to fulfill this role, with many questions over its effectiveness and legitimacy in British politics. It is in desperate need reform. Here’s a few ways it could be improved.
For a start, the Lords should be two-thirds elected by the population, each Lord representing a ceremonial county, with four Lords per county, giving a total of 400. This retains a geographical link, but avoids current constituencies, so the Lords would not become too closely linked to the Commons. This wouldn’t be completely proportionate – but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it would give Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a greater influence in British affairs, which is desperately needed if the Union is to be preserved. Under the four-Lords rule, England would have 192 Lords, Scotland 132, Wales 52 and Northern Ireland 24. England would retain the most representation, but the other regions of the Union would be better-represented – and places with little political influence, like northeast England, would have more clout than at present, allowing for regional rebalancing.
This makes 400 Lords exactly (and makes the maths easier), leaving 200 Lords to be appointed by a special commission. This would be similar to the current appointment system – based on experience and ability to scrutinise. We shouldn’t necessarily discriminate – positive discrimination is, after all, still discrimination – but these Lords should be drawn from across society, of different ages, classes, backgrounds and races.
MPs should be banned from immediately serving in the Lords after retirement as an MP. There should be at least a five-year gap between leaving the Commons and joining the Lords, except in special circumstances – perhaps a two-thirds vote in favour in the Lords. MPs have useful experience, but they are often too partisan to be useful, and many have little knowledge of the world outside politics – for example, Mhairi Black, an SNP MP, has been in the Commons since the age of 20. This is not necessarily a bad thing – but Lords should have experience of the world of work, instead of having lived inside a political bubble all their lives. A delay would ensure that the higher chamber would be fully separated from the lower one, and perhaps better suited to meet the demands of everyday society.
To add to this separation, the Lords could be based in Manchester, to equalise the UK – one of the most regionally imbalanced countries in the world. We need a political shift to outer Britain if we want to preserve the Union. The Brexit vote – like it or not – was at least partially the result of disenchantment of outer Britain, with a sense of disengagement in the political process. London feels far away for many. Moving part of Parliament to Manchester would reconnect northern Britons to politics.
This last point is, however, more contentious. But, perhaps at least, Lords shouldn’t be allowed to affiliate to a British political party – this could lead to a more partisan atmosphere. Instead, they should run as independents – independent conservative or independent socialist, maybe, but not Labour or Tory. Yes, party groupings will form, but the House of Lords must not be partisan. It needs to provide independent scrutiny of the Commons. That is its function. These reforms could make it more representative, whilst maintaining its scrutiny of government and its decisions. Elections should also take place only every 15 years, to give Lords security of tenure, and prevent electioneering. Recall petitions for corrupt Lords must be implemented from the start, however.
To conclude, the Lords is a great institution, but it’s creaking at the moment. It needs change. If we implement good reforms, it can not only be improved itself, but also improve wider issues within the UK’s political scene – bringing residents of Outer Britain back into the political fold, for example. In the end, this is vital for our parliamentary democracy.