The function of the House of Lords is supposed to be a revising chamber. It is meant to take what comes out of the Commons and dig out the gremlins before it gets onto the Statute Books. To fulfill this function there needs to be three things in the House of Lords: expertise, experience, and integrity. Yet to date, it has been stuffed with the favourites of the three ruling parties. Here are some suggestions for possible reform.
The size of the institution should be kept to about 500, made up of a variety of different people. One group of people who need to be in the Lords are the Law Lords. It is just common sense that if you are reviewing what is going to be law, you have the senior judiciary examine them for potential legal faults. The senior judiciary make Common Law, which fills in the gaps that Statute Law doesn’t cover, so the overlap of responsibilities is nothing that doesn’t already exist.
Some of the Church of England Bishops should be retained, perhaps the two Archbishops and three senior Bishops. They would be there to give voice to those perceived as having no other voice. Only Church of England Bishops should sit by virtue of their clerical appointments, as other clergy owe their primary allegiance to foreign religious institutions. However, this should not prevent other clergymen sitting in the Lords if they qualify for other reasons. One of the functions of the established Church of England is to be the guardian of religious freedom in this country. The policy of the Church of England, with The Monarch as its secular Head, will always be respect and tolerance towards other faiths. If the Church of England is removed from the machinery of government in the UK, something will move in to replace it, and it won’t be secularism.
The 91 hereditary peers have considerable experience and should be left as they are, but not replaced as they die out, as they are an anachronism and will eventually have to go. They should not be included in the approximate figure of 500 total members. There may be a case for one or two, with specific roles, to be retained. The example that comes to mind is the Duke of Norfolk, who holds the office of Earl Marshal and has a State ceremonial function.
There has been a lot of argument about an elected House of Lords. This sort of change is inevitable, but it should be incorporated gradually, to see if it works, as extreme radical change is not always for the best. Perhaps we should dip our toes in the water and elect only about 100 “Lord Senators” at first. However, there should be qualifications for candidates as we don’t want the same dross that sometimes gets into the Commons to get into the Lords. They should need similar qualifications to the ones proposed for the Life Peers. If this is seen to work well, it can be expanded in future reforms, and if it turns out not so well, it can be dropped.
Life Peers should be the backbone of the Lords. However, they should fulfil the requirements of expertise, experience, and integrity. They should have successfully managed some sort of corporate entity for some years, or have considerable academic knowledge in some specialist field, and should have an unblemished reputation. Preference should be given to people who have built up a successful business from scratch, instead of just joining a successful business. Former politicians should only be considered if they have held Cabinet rank, and have not botched it up too badly during their tenure. Perhaps they should have age restrictions on them as well, and should not be considered for the Lords until they have reached 45 and must retire at 75 unless there are exceptional circumstances.
The big difficulty here is who is going to decide who gets these peerages? Perhaps there should be a committee drawn from volunteers from the general public, who should be unpaid (but able to claim expenses for attending meetings), regular voters, and 45 or over. There are different alternatives as to how long this committee should sit. One alternative would be for it to sit for only one year and then be replaced. There is also a good argument for such a committee to sit for a Parliamentary term at a time, to allow members to accrue experience. This is something for future debate.
One thing is for sure. The House of Lords will be changed considerably in the near future. The above suggestions aim to start a reformation, without changing what has worked well for some time now. Gradual reformation allows us to see if a reform is going to work or not, and allows us to expand it or drop it as befits the situation. Reform should not be rushed, as it is more important to get things right than to do them quickly.
Phillip Smith 3 November 2013