The House of Lords voted unanimously this week to reduce the number of members of the House Lords. This was victory for the still relatively new Lord Speaker – the former Cabinet Minister and MP Norman Fowler. From the start of his time on the Woolsack he has understood very clearly, in a way too many other Peers have not, that at over 800 members the Upper House is ridiculously too large.
Unrepresentative, unelected and increasingly unimpressive, the role and membership of the Lords has been treated by successive Prime Ministers with increasing contempt. John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have stuffed the Upper Chamber with donors, aides and assistants but have not thought it worth their own while participating in the way all their predecessors had done, barring two – Winston Churchill and Ted Heath who both sat as MPs until practically their final breath.
If they were wise, Peers would seize the momentum for change delivered by the vote and make radical suggestions on reducing numbers and how people come to be members of the Lords, because it is clearly time for a change. The question is to what.
Since the House of Lords Appointment Commission was introduced in 2000 it has done good work in trying to bring into the Lords very distinguished non-party political figures. Lord Pannick, QC, currently appearing in the Article 50 Supreme Court case, or Lord Hennessy, the historian and constitutional expert are two good examples. On the whole however these distinguished individuals have been vastly outnumbered as Tony Blair and then David Cameron swamped the place with their own nominations – to the lasting damage of both the chamber’s reputation and the quality of its debates.
For a start the 26 Bishops of the Church of England could be removed. Like the Law Lords, who were moved to the other side of Parliament Square to become the Supreme Court, it is time the Bishops were taken out of the legislature. Few of them would be appointed a Peer on individual merit. Frequently they speak on issues on which they have little knowledge, special insight or particular expertise. Since the law stopping Church of England Priests from standing for the House of Commons was abolished by Tony Blair’s government Clergy are free to fully participate in the political process. Bishops could stand as independents for the Commons. The Church already has its own parliament – the General Synod. It has no need to be represented any longer in the nation’s Parliament.
The remaining 90 or so hereditary Peers could also be removed. This rump of hereditary peers was always meant to provoke the then government into completing House of Lords reform. Somehow however it just became a settled fact. The removal of the final batch of hereditary peers is long over due.
Much more radical reform is required however than just removing the 26 representatives of a particular interest group or the descendants of those who have gone before. The Government’s (correct) determination to reduce the number of Members of Parliament should force the Lords into agreeing to reduce its own numbers to certainly no larger than the Commons. It should probably go much farther and reduce its number to the size of, say, the United States Senate, which manages with 100 members. A second chamber of Parliament is desirable and necessary and the Upper Chamber of the British Parliament, having voted to make itself smaller, should go the whole hog and and move swiftly to radical reform.