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House of Lords needs reform — not abolition  

09 December 2022

Gordon Brown is mistaken in calling for an elected Second Chamber, says Alan Smith

Alamy

The King, while still Prince of Wales, reading the Queen’s Speech last May. He was flanked by Prince William and the Queen Consort, then the Duchess of Cornwall

The King, while still Prince of Wales, reading the Queen’s Speech last May. He was flanked by Prince William and the Queen Consort, then the Duchess o...

A REPORT produced this week by Gordon Brown for the Labour Party has proposed sweeping away “the indefensible House of Lords”, and replacing it with a smaller, elected Second Chamber “to safeguard the new constitutional basis of the New Britain”. It contains a range of bold and ambitious ideas, many of which are worth serious attention, some of which are not, and a few that we’ve heard before. But, on the House of Lords, it misfires. Our Second Chamber performs a valuable function, and what it really needs is urgent reform, not abolition.

Form must always follow function. The purpose of the Lords is to revise and scrutinise legislation passed to it by the Commons, to hold government to account, and occasionally to ask the elected House to “think again”. While the Lords can propose changes to laws, being unelected, it has no authority to insist on its position, should the elected House, in which the Government has a majority, continue to disagree.

Lords membership is drawn from many different professions and parts of civil society, bringing independence and expertise to debates, and there is no built-in government majority, meaning that often a government has to win an argument to get its way rather than just deploy the whip. Like my fellow bishops, I play a full and active part in this, alongside my duties leading the House in prayer and providing pastoral support.

As well as a faith perspective, bishops seek to bring to debates the voices of those on the margins, including refugees and asylum-seekers, families struggling on benefits, victims of the gambling industry, and people suffering human-rights abuses overseas. It is an extension of our vocation to service, locally and in the nation, as we seek to transform unjust structures of society and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

THE Brown report identifies problems that I agree need tackling, including the House’s excessive size and lack of geographical diversity. Bishops have an example to bring here, having operated under an upper cap for the best part of 175 years, compulsory retirement at 70, and being rooted in the concerns and experiences of the people who make up our parish networks, from Devon to Cumbria.

It is disappointing that, in the absence of a statutory cap on overall numbers in the House, the lack of restraint in prime-ministerial appointments in recent years has meant that the House has expanded. Unless a future government can get a grip on this, term limits or a compulsory retirement age may be worth a closer look. Resolving the problem of excessive patronage powers in appointments is another urgent issue on which I agree with the report, and on which I have supported legislation in the House to put the Appointments Commission on a firm statutory basis.

The report has much to say that is right about the problems of modern politics which need fixing. It diagnoses a lack of public trust, a disengagement, a fraying of ties that bind the constituent parts of the UK together. Some of its suggestions are excellent and worthy of support, especially on improving ethics and standards in public life, and I would hope to see any future government take these on.

In treating as undisputed truth, however, that election confers the only legitimacy worth having, the Brown report makes a fundamental mistake. It considers the two Houses of Parliament as separate entities, instead of distinct but complementary components of a whole parliamentary system. That system derives its legitimacy through its elected part, the House of Lords assuming the subordinate position because it is conscious of its unelected status. Two elected chambers, using different systems, would create competition between them over which had greatest legitimacy. This is a recipe for gridlock.

 

SECOND, and of deeper concern, in 155 pages and 40 recommendations, there is no mention of the part played by faith and civil society in relationship to our political landscape, and no mention of the historic and enduring links between the Crown, Church, and Parliament which make up so much of our living constitutional arrangement. These are serious omissions, which I hope the authors will reflect on.

The House of Lords, for all its faults, is worth preserving for the vital part that it plays in our parliamentary democracy. The answer to the problems facing the Union is not to abolish and recast the Lords in a new function. And the answer to the problems facing so many in crisis in our country, owing to cost-of-living concerns, is not, I’m afraid, constitutional reform or more full-time elected politicians.

It is with good reason that the political historian Lord Hennessy described Lords reform as “the Bermuda triangle of British politics”. Sir Keir Starmer would be well advised to sail ahead with caution.

Dr Alan Smith is the Bishop of St Albans and the Convener of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords.

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