Although calls have been growing for the House of Lords to be abolished in light of its obstruction to the governments’ flagship EU Withdrawal Bill, there remains a role for an unelected chamber within the British constitution. At its best, the Upper House functions as a scrutinising chamber, casting an expert eye over proposed legislation. It offers rational advice which is unconstrained by the prevailing political mood, and is impervious to the whims of an increasingly erratic electorate.
A cursory examination of US or Italian political history demonstrates the imprudence of a system containing two elected chambers with equal claims to democratic legitimacy. Such systems often create either political deadlock (when both houses are governed by different political parties or coalitions), or fail to give proper scrutiny (when both legislatures are dominated by the same political factions), leading to poor legislation. For a bicameral system to operate effectively, one chamber must subordinate the other, and all legislation must be scrutinised even-handedly.
In Britain, the elected nature of the House of Commons provides that chamber with a stronger political mandate than its unelected counterpart. This has generally tended to prevent conflicts between the two becoming deadlocked. Further, British constitutional convention dictates that if a particular legislative proposal was contained within the governing party’s manifesto and constituted a central plank of its electoral platform, any intervention from their Lordships should be minimal.
The behaviour of peers in relation to Brexit however threatens this constitutional settlement and risks growing public demands for the House to be abolished. Despite a direct mandate from the British people to implement Brexit, and Conservative, DUP and Labour Party manifesto commitments to remove Britain from the EU’s ‘single market’ and customs union, the Lords have so far defeated the EU Withdrawal Bill 15 times.
Peers voted 348 to 225 to try to force the government to negotiate a new customs union with the EU, and 83 Labour Lords even moved against party policy by voting for Britain to retain membership of the ‘single market’. The ability of unelected peers to repeatedly frustrate the clearly expressed will of the British electorate demonstrates that comprehensive reform can no longer be avoided.
The manner in which Lords are appointed to the Second Chamber has long been a national disgrace. During his 10 years in office Tony Blair created an astounding 357 peerages, while in his 6 year tenure David Cameron appointed a further 242, taking the current total to over 800.
Not only is the sheer number of peers a completely unnecessary drain on public finances, the calibre of Lords has also taken a battering over the past two decades. The Upper Chamber – far from being filled with impartial experts and individuals who have made outstanding contributions to public life – is now stuffed with failed politicians, former EU Commissioners and party donors who have bought their way into positions of power.
To resolve this, the number of peerages should be capped at around half the current total, with those members having the poorest attendance figures ejected. Prime Ministers should also be stripped of their ability appoint Lordships at will. Instead, the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission should be wholly responsible for appointing life peers based on experience and expertise. Our legislative process would be strengthened significantly if Bills were scrutinised by non-party-political scientists, doctors and engineers, rather than individuals who happen to play golf with members of the cabinet. The Upper Chamber should cease to be an institution where failed politicians go to die, and instead become a place where Bills are examined objectively and in a non-partisan manner.
Further, the competences of the two Houses should be more clearly defined. Exactly how and under what circumstances their Lordships are able to revise legislation needs to be made far more explicit. It should be made unequivocally clear, for example, that Lords cannot block attempts by the Commons to implement the result of referendum decisions.
There is much to love about the British constitution and we should do well not to throw the baby out with the bathwater by abolishing the Upper House. But Brexit has revealed more clearly than ever that fundamental constitutional reform is long overdue. If such reform is unforthcoming and the Lords continue to thwart the electorate by attempting to reverse Brexit, they may, regrettably, be signing their own death warrants.