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The pros and cons of the House of Lords

The long-running debate over Britain’s unelected upper chamber was reignited this month as Labour announced plans to abolish the House of Lords if the party wins the next general election.

Speaking to Sky News earlier this month, Keir Starmer said he hoped to abolish the Lords in his first term as prime minister, replacing it instead with an elected upper chamber.

The proposal forms part of Labour’s plans for a “New Britain” as outlined in a report commissioned by the Labour Party and headed by former prime minister Gordon Brown. It is one of several sweeping proposals for reform that could make their way into Labour’s next election manifesto.

“We’re going to get one shot at fixing our economy and fixing our politics and I want to make sure we get it exactly right,” Starmer told the broadcaster.

But Tory peer Philip Norton warned against “Big Bang reform”, arguing that such plans “often takes the form of displacement activity”, when he spoke to Times Radio. “The nation’s got problems, people must come up with constitutional reform because it’s a fairly simple, straightforward proposal, rather than actually getting down to the real issues.”

Here’s a look at some of the arguments for and against the upper House. 

1

Pro: peers bring experience

Amid calls for the House of Lords to become an elected chamber in 2014, Peter Oborne argued that it actually worked remarkably well, throwing out what he called “populist measures introduced by governments determined to bolster their right-wing credentials”.

Writing for The Telegraph at the time, he said an elected House of Lords would never have the will or the courage to stand up against public opinion, and would deprive the public of the judgement of “very valuable” peers, such as retired generals, trade union leaders, academics and judges.

2

Con: undemocratic and no diversity

The UK has the world’s second largest decision-making body after China’s National People’s Congress. Campaigners such as the Electoral Reform Society argue that it is undemocratic that unelected peers should hold such sway in British politics.

All the main parties have pledged to cut the number of peers, and many politicians agree that hereditary peers should be phased out. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband previously proposed a wholly elected senate, with roughly proportionate numbers from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions, instead of MP-style constituencies.

During the coalition years, the Lib Dems put forward proposals to halve the number of members and ensure that at least 80% of peers were elected, but the plans were abandoned after an agreement with Tory opponents failed to be reached.

3

Pro: constitutional check 

The House of Lords has proved it is “willing to defeat ministers even on flagship and other significant pieces of legislation” in recent years, said Sonali Campion and Sean Kippin in The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit. 

In turn, this has led to “somewhat greater checks and balances constitutionally and a little more scrutiny in the policy-making process”, they argued. 

4

Con: accusations of cronyism

The current system makes it very hard to get rid of politicians from the Cabinet. In 2019, Downing Street announced that Nicky Morgan, who didn’t contest her seat in the general election and was therefore no longer an MP, was to be made a Conservative peer in order to remain a member of Johnson’s top team. And Zac Goldsmith, who lost his Richmond seat the same year, also entered the House of Lords so that he could continue to attend Cabinet as environment minister.

In 2022, Johnson’s nomination of Evgeny Lebedev for a peerage was also questioned, with Labour urging the government to release the advice given to the prime minister by security services before the Russian businessman’s elevation to the Lords. 

5

Pro: improves legislation

Members meet in Westminster and are expected to scrutinise bills approved by the House of Commons. While they cannot normally prevent laws from being passed, they can delay bills and add amendments that are then sent back for consideration in the Commons.

6

Con: stipend concerns

Peers are not paid a salary but can claim a flat daily allowance of £162, or £323 if they attend a sitting. They can also choose not to make a claim.

One notorious anecdote reported in 2017 told of a peer who “left the taxi running” outside the chamber while he dashed in to claim his £300, according to The Telegraph.

Lady D’Souza, who stepped down as speaker of the upper chamber in 2016, told BBC documentary Meet the Lords that many of her colleagues did nothing to justify their stipend.

“There is a core of peers who work incredibly hard, who do that work, and there are, sad to say, many, many, many peers who contribute absolutely nothing but who claim the full allowance.” Members who already receive a ministerial or office holders’ salary cannot claim the flat rate.

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