The House of Lords is the Upper Chamber of the UK Parliament. It is made up of 92 Excepted Hereditary Peers, 26 Bishops and around 650 Life Peers. Its most significant role is scrutinising the work of the House of Commons and particularly acting as a ‘amending chamber’ for legislation. To answer this question the following needs to be considered: the legitimacy of members of the Lords, the issue of how Lords are appointed and whether the Lords is powerful enough to carry out its key roles. Ultimately, it can be argued that there are many areas where reform of the House of Lords would be beneficial. However, this reform needs to be carefully considered so as not to lose the independence and expertise that make the Lords a very effective chamber.
One strongest arguments for reform of the House of Lords is that is it out of date in a modern liberal democracy because it has ’no democratic legitimacy’. The House of Lords has no popularly elected members, with the only elections held being by-elections to elect new hereditary peers. Whilst these 92 peers are now elected by their fellow hereditary peers they are ultimately in place because of the antiquated system of primogeniture that allows them to take their seat. This undermines their legitimacy in a modern legislature. In addition, since the Life Peerages Act (1958) peers have been able to be appointed for life. Until 2014 they could not be removed even if they had committed a serious criminal offence. This is why Jeffrey Archer remains in the Lord’s despite being imprisoned for four years for perjury. The fact that such characters can remain in the Lords and make legislation without public approval is hard to justify in a liberal democracy. As such there are clear arguments that the Lords lacks the democratic legitimacy to carry out its functions. Alternatively, whilst the Lords may have no democratic legitimacy it does provide a level of ‘expert advice and scrutiny’ that elected politicians simply cannot match. Most MPs are now appointed to the House of Lords because they can offer distinct expertise on an area of public policy. For example, Lord Lisvane is a former Clerk of the Commons and expert in constitutional issues whilst Lord Dannat is a former Chief of the General Staff an expert in military matters. Lord Dannat spoke eight times on the Armed Forces Bill and 24 times on the Overseas Operations Bill in 2021 thereby helping scrutiny of areas in which he is an expert. Whilst Lords are usually specialists, MPs in the House of Commons are required to be generalists. For example, of Lord Dannat’s last ten contributions in the Lords all have been about military or security matters. By contrast, Conservative MP Huw Merriman’s last ten contributions have been about seven different topics. These specialists in the Lords can arguably have a more profound impact on policy than the generalists in the Commons. Overall, it is clear that the democratic legitimacy of the Lords is unhelpful. Yet, this problem is overcome to a significant extent by the number of peers who provide expert legitimacy that enhances the legislature and therefore on this basis reform should only take place if this can be retained.
Yet, not all Lords are experts and there are concerns over ‘the system of appointment’. As the source also states ‘In 2015 research suggests a relationship between large political donors and nominations to the Lords’. This has been a common theme in the Lords. In 2007 Tony Blair was interviewed twice by the Police (without caution) during the Cash for Honours scandal when it was alleged that Labour Donors were being placed in the Lords. Recently, Lord Lebedev was placed in the Lords despite security service recommendations that he was a security risk. These consistent scandals undermine confidence in the House of Lords and undermine the roles it plays in the political process. In addition, many Lords simply do not play a useful role in the House. For example, since joining the Lords in 2009 Lord Sugar has voted in just 2.36% of divisions and has spoken just 63 times. There also are other ‘non-working peers’. Between 2010 and 2015 62 peers claimed £360,000 in expenses despite not voting in a single division! These inactive peers undermine the legitimacy of the Lords and creates an ‘unprofessional chamber’. However, since 2000 there has been an ‘independent House of Lords Commission’ that has been responsible for both vetting party nominations and also for appointing non-partisan crossbench peers who possess ‘independence of thought’. As part of this role they have been able to dramatically increase the diversity of the Lords and made it ‘more representative’. There are many areas where the Lords is more descriptively representative than the Commons. For example, 11% of Lords have a declared disability compared to 0.76% in the Commons. Much of the Lord’s opposition to the Bedroom Tax in 2012 was driven by vocal interventions from these members. In addition, there are 29 MPs from an ethnic minority background compared to 63 Lords. This indicates the House of Lords is helping to drive the representation of minority groups in Parliament. Whilst there are issues over the appointments to the Lords that are problematic, the independence from the Crossbench Peers is a useful counterweight to the partisan Commons. Therefore, whilst reform is needed, it most definitely should not be at the risk of losing the Lord’s independence.
A final argument is that the Lords needs to be reformed is that it is simply ‘too weak’ to carry out the functions that it has. Due to a number of factors the House of Lords does not have the power to fully hold the Commons to account. Firstly, since the Parliament Act 1949 the Lords has only been able to delay laws for one year. Whilst the Parliament Act has only been invoked four times, they very fact it exists forces the Lords to back down to the Commons. Secondly, the Lords are limited by conventions such as Commons Financial Privilege and the Salisbury Convention. The Salisbury Convention means the Lord does not reject a bill that was in a government manifesto. Essentially, this means that a government with a clear majority will be able to get their legislative agenda through Parliament. For example, the Lords made 14 amendments to the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill but realistically had to back down when the Commons rejected these changes. These factors indicate that the Lords cannot carry out its role effectively. Conversely, even with these limitations the House of Lords can have influence and ‘Governments are regularly defeated in the Lords’. The House of Lords spends significant time going through bills line by line and trying to improve them. For example, the Agriculture Bill in 2020 was considered by the Lords for 96 hours compared with 32 hours, indicating a much deeper level of scrutiny. In addition, despite the Parliament Act, the Lords can inflict significant defeats on the Government. For example, in 2015 the Lords controversially voted to delay Tax Credits Cuts by the Government. In addition, the number of defeats inflicted in the Lords is significant. For example, since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister he has not suffered a substantive defeat in the House of Commons but has been defeated 243 times in the Lords. These defeats force the Commons to reconsider the issue and give it more scrutiny and also indicates that the Lords can be a buffer to the elective dictatorship that often exists in the Lords. Whilst the Lords has far less power than the Commons, this should be the case for an unelected house. It is however clear that the Lords does have enough power to make the Government reconsider its plans and to a large degree plays a useful role in the legislative process.
Overall, it is clear that the House of Lords should not be dramatically reformed as the House of Lords is full of experts who can play a meaningful role in amending legislation. Whilst the unelected nature of the Lords and controversies over appointments can be damaging to its reputation, this does not prevent the Lords from consistently holding the government to account. Therefore, any reform of the House of Lords should be carried out carefully so that it does not negatively impact the positive role that its members play in the parliamentary process.
Why is this a Level 5 Response?
- The answer starts with a clear introduction which shows knowledge of the topic, sets out the themes to be considered and, most importantly, sets out a clear argument.
- All the points of analysis originate from the source. They are not over-quoted – they are concisely highlighted to show the examiner the candidate is using the source (as required by the question).
- There are three sets of paired arguments originating from the source. (It is important to note that many students will not have time to do three sets and Level 5 can be achieved doing only two).
- There is detailed own knowledge (from outside the source) to help to analyse the points in the source.
- Analysis is built upon this detailed knowledge, with a consistent focus on answering the question.
- Clear mini conclusions are used at the end of the section which consider what the view on the question is as regards the issue that has been discussed.
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