22nd June 2021
The Sunday Times this weekend did a good piece of journalism on the hereditary peers in the house of lords.
Who could possibly disagree?
Well – certainly not this blog, in principle.
Removal of the hereditary element in the house of lords is one of many ‘micro’ reforms of the constitution of the United Kingdom which should be done – regardless of the interminable ‘debate’ on the merits of a codified constitution.
Here are some things to think about as you nod-along.
There are other (perhaps even worse) problems with the composition of the house of lords: the power of patronage of party leaders – especially the prime minister, the rights of bishops of just one denomination of one church to have twenty-six votes, the number of life peers who do not take any active role but can be summoned to vote, and so on.
And contrary to the impression given by the headline of that piece: ninety of the ninety-two hereditary peers sitting in the house of lords do not have automatic seats – they are elected by the hereditary peers generally.
This means, somewhat paradoxically, they are the only members of the house of lords that are there by means of any sort of electoral process.
They are also free from any allegiance to any party manager or any debt arising from an act of patronage.
In other words: they are part of the legislature outside the control of the government or party leaders.
Whatever the case that can be made for hereditary peers in the house of lords, they still need to go – and sooner rather than later.
Some constitutional abominations are too awful to be tolerated.
And removing the hereditary peers would also make the house of lords more, shall we say, ‘legitimate’ in its constitutional role.
(And can we please get rid of all the mock-chivalric-pseudo-feudal-medieval titles while we are at it – if you really want to be a lord or lady of something, join a historical enactment society.)
All that said: there should not be the removal of one of the genuinely independent features of the house of lords without regard to the overall balance.
There is little to be gained from clapping and cheering the removal of the hereditary peers if the effect would be to tilt the balance of the house of the lords towards more governmental control.
For, as the constitution of the United Kingdom currently stands, the house of lords is the most effective check and balance to a house of commons dominated by the government.
The house of lords cannot block any legislation – and nor should it, as it does not have any democratic basis – but it can force the house of commons to think again and more carefully about its legislative proposals.
And often the reasoned amendments of the house of lords are accepted by the house of commons – and, indeed, often the house of lords amendments can provide convenient cover to ministers who eventually realise that the initial proposals were unsound.
Given that the most important constitutional function of the house of lords is that of a check and a balance – rather than to be a chamber with a rival democratic basis – then the most important quality is that it should be independent.
Stripping out one feature that provides any independence in the upper chamber should thereby be matched by other measures to maintain that independence.
That is why there should be a more general (ahem) peer review.
And luckily, there has actually been a useful review.
The Burns report of 2017 puts forward sensible and persuasive proposals for reforming the composition of the house of lords while keeping its independent constitutional role.
The key proposals are to limit the size of the upper chamber and to convert lifetime membership (of the life peers) to a single term of fifteen years.
That report, however, did not make direct proposals for the hereditary peers and bishops.
But, in principle, there is no reason why such a reform could not also mean the removal of the hereditary and spiritual peers – as the overriding objective of a balanced upper chamber outside the domination of any government of the day would be retained.
So – yes, nod-along with the attack on the hereditary elements and, also yes, let’s get rid of them – but when the nodding-along ends, let us also make sure we have not ended up with a less independent upper house in our current constitutional arrangements.
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