Giving the Lords a chance to determine their own future

“In May of this year I introduced a private member’s Bill to reform the House of Lords.

Since the passing of the 1999 House of Lords Act by Tony Blair’s first government, the democratic reform of the Lords has been a major item of unfinished business in British politics. Although subsequent governments, both New Labour and Coalition, tried and failed to agree on a second stage reform, to introduce elected members and remove the residual rump of 90 hereditary peers left in place by the 1999 Act, few can doubt that such reform must come eventually. At the last general election, it was included in the manifestos of all the main parties, with even the Tories acknowledging the need for it whilst stating that it would not be a priority. The noble lords are living on borrowed time, and the question is not whether further reform will happen, but how soon.

This Bill gives the Lords an opportunity to design their own reform now, rather than having something imposed upon them by a future House of Commons. The thinking behind it is that if the Lords voluntarily come up with their own plan, it would be difficult for the Commons to then turn it down, having themselves failed to agree twice before. By accepting that change is inevitable and seizing the initiative, the Lords can obtain the best possible deal for themselves – a reform that meets the requirements of democracy, whilst retaining the best features of the present system.

The Bill proposes that the reformed House of Lords should have 292 elected members, but (in a crucial difference to previous proposals which the Commons failed to agree on) that the present life peers and bishops would all retain their seats and other privileges, but give up their voting rights. Elections would be by proportional representation, using a modified version of the system which is currently used for electing UK members of the European Parliament. The system would be phased in, so that elected members would serve an 8-year term, with half coming up for election every four years. Present members of the Lords who wished to retain their voting rights would be able to stand in these elections without having to renounce their peerages, and the proposed system would also allow the Cross-bench peers (who have no party allegiance) to put forward lists of candidates against those of the political parties.

The present honours system would remain intact, so people of distinction could still be made life peers and be able to speak in the House, but since they would not be able to vote it would remove the incentive for each successive prime minister to appoint more and more people of their own party to alter the balance of the chamber in their own favour, which has led to a huge increase in the number of life peers over the past 20 years.

It is undoubtedly right that people of great distinction should be able to contribute to the national debate by speaking in the Lords, and my Bill would allow that to continue. Since being in the House, one thing which has impressed me enormously is the huge wealth of experience and expertise which its members possess. Whatever subject we may be debating, whether it’s the NHS or preserved steam railways or the history and politics of Turkmenistan or Botswana, or anything else you care to mention, there will be someone there with expert knowledge. It would be a tragedy for Parliament to lose that.

However, the overriding principle must be that the people who make our laws should be democratically elected, rather than appointed. My Bill allows us to make that necessary and inevitable reform, without losing the best features of the Lords as it is now.

Some people have said that my Bill cannot succeed because it is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. If I may use the analogy without disrespect to my noble colleagues, the point is that Christmas is still coming whether the Lords votes for it or not; what I am offering them is a chance to vote for a vegetarian Christmas.”