The House of Lords still needs reform, but that reform should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary
Writing exclusively for Endeavour Public Affairs, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster reflects on the recent government decision not to proceed with the House of Lords Reform Bill. He goes on to set out his vision of a reformed House of Lords, a vision he believes for which there would be a substantial degree of consensus.
Lord Armstrong was Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister from 1970 to 1975. He was knighted in 1978. From 1979 to 1987, he served as Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He was elevated to the peerage in 1988 as Baron Armstrong of Ilminster, of Ashill in the County of Somerset.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the Government’s decision not to proceed with its House of Lords Reform Bill, it is surely that Tony Blair was right to say that we should be looking for changes for which there would be a substantial degree of consensus.
I suggest that there is a high degree of consensus on the following points:
- The House of Lords as at present constituted does a pretty good job as a chamber for revising legislation and debating important issues;
- It should continue to do that job, but it does need to be reformed.
- The House of Commons, whose members are chosen by universal democratic suffrage, should retain its primacy; in other words, no legislation should be able to be passed that has not been approved by the House of Commons;
- The House of Lords as it is now, with some 800 members, is much too large;
- The remaining hereditary peers should be phased out;
- Under existing legislation non-hereditary peers are and can only be appointed for life. There should be provision for retirement, and where appropriate for appointment for fixed terms;
- Members of the House of Lords should not be appointed solely or mainly on the recommendation of the Prime Minister; and
- There should continue to be an element of independent non-party political members (“crossbenchers”) in the House of Lords.
So what reforms should we be considering to give effect to these desiderata, and which might attract a sufficient degree of consensus?
First, we do not need a second chamber of members elected by universal democratic suffrage, whether on the “first past the post” system or on some more proportional system of election. Such a chamber would sooner or later be bound to challenge the primacy of the House of Commons, and its members would be in competition with members of the House of Commons in the constituencies, even if the boundaries of the constituencies for the two chambers were different.
Frank Field MP and I have proposed, in a memorandum submitted to the Joint Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny of the Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill (the Richard Committee), that the House of Lords should be limited to 450 members.
Of these 450 members up to 250 would be chosen by a system of indirect election which would allow for the representation in the House of Lords of the main economic and social activities and interests that make up the fabric of our society. These activities and interests are affected by legislation, and it would be useful for them to be represented and to have their say in the process of revision of legislation and debate which takes place in the House of Lords. Thus there could be chosen representation of industry, commerce, agriculture, the financial sector, the trade unions, the health professions, the educational professions, the universities, the legal professions, the arts, sport, the media, and no doubt many others. Each group would be free to choose its representatives in its own way. Some groups could adopt their own arrangements for nominating their representatives by election, as the universities used to elect members to the House of Commons. Other groups could find other ways of choosing their representatives. Representatives would be chosen to serve for a fixed term – say, five years – but could be eligible (up to the age of, say, 75) to be chosen again for a second or subsequent term.
Up to 100 members would be appointed as independent non-party political people (“crossbenchers”) chosen by an appointments commission to provide a resource of personal expertise in different fields. These members could be appointed subject to a retirement age.
And finally the Prime Minister would have the right, to be exercised in consultation as appropriate with the leaders of the main Opposition parties, to nominate up to 100 “political” members, so as to enable him or her to have some Ministers in the House of Lords and so as to allow adjustments to the balance of political parties in the House of Lords in the light of changes in a parliamentary general election. These members would be required to resign at the next general election but could be eligible for reappointment when a new House of Commons was elected.
An independent commission would be set up to manage the process of appointments to the House of Lords. Formally speaking, the commission would make recommendations for appointments to the Prime Minister, who would in turn recommend them to the Sovereign. Each of the groups choosing the 250 representatives of economic and social interests and activities would send its nominations to the commission. Each of the representatives so nominated would be required to tell the commission whether he or she proposed to take a party whip, and if so of which party. The commission would select the 100 independent non-party political “crossbenchers”, as the existing non-statutory commission does today. The commission would inform the Prime Minister of the party political balance of the 250 and would receive from the Prime Minister his or her nominations for the 100 “political” members. The commission would also have the responsibility of “vetting” the Prime Minister’s nominations which was formerly carried by the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee.
The commission’s first duty on being established would be to put forward for the approval of both Houses of Parliament proposals for the transition over a period of years from the existing arrangements to the new arrangements for appointing members of the House of Lords.
New Peers would as now be appointed by Royal Warrant. Peers would be appointed to serve as members of the House of Lords, and would be entitled to add the suffix LP (Lord of (or in) Parliament) to their titles for so long as they remained members of the House of Lords. They would be allowed as a matter of courtesy to retain their titles, but not to use the suffix, after ceasing to be members of the House of Lords.
A reform on these lines would be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It would remedy many of the generally perceived shortcomings in the present system. It would allow the House of Commons to retain its primacy without risk of challenge, buttressed by agreed conventions on the processes of legislation. It would create a House with a strong representative element chosen on a different system from the Commons. It would have regard to the party political balance in the House of Commons, without seeking to mirror it exactly. It would retain an independent group of non-party political “crossbenchers”. Such a reform might, I believe, be able to command a considerable degree of consensus.