THE CURRENT ROW over Cameron’s resignation honours list (much of it media hype from,.of all places, The Times) points up yet again the extent to which the whole honours system has become a tool for Prime Ministers to reward their cronies at little expense for doing not very much.
However if Cameron wishes to reward his wife’s hairdresser with an MBE the result is less to devalue the honours system, which has always been used to reward people for their commitment to otherwise unrewarding tasks, than to devalue his own reputation.
Abusing the House of Lords is a different matter.
Having evolved over the centuries to be a highly efficient, if in modern terms unorthodox, revising Chamber, it now finds itself under attack both from within its own ranks and from those outside who are heedless of its function and the effect that their own actions have on that function (stand up, Messrs Blair and Cameron) and those who are obsessed with the idea that anything that does not directly reflect the will of the people (for which read “those who believe that they can manipulate the people to their will”) has no legitimacy in a parliamentary democracy.
It is generally agreed that, however constructed, a second, revising Chamber is to be preferred to a uni-cameral arrangement in the interests of good governance. Recent experience with the Scottish government where it has been left to the courts to adjudicate on the legality of certain aspects of legislation would bear this out. The question that needs to be answered is how the Second Chamber, and more specifically the House of Lords, should look, given its long history, the uniqueness of Britain’s (unwritten) constitution, and the demands of the 21st century in the light of Brexit.
The following is not the finished product but is the result of careful thought by a small number of people interested in the welfare of the British parliament and with no particular axe to grind.
The House of Lords, composed of hereditary peers and leavened with a few life peers such as the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (judges of the House of Lords sitting as the final Court of Appeal for the UK and certain other Commonwealth countries) was expanded in the late 1950s by the Life Peerages Act in a burst of modernity by the Conservative government, a move which saw the virtual end of the creation of hereditary peers. One effect of this novelty was the inevitable “mission creep” as Prime Ministers used the opportunity to boost their party’s representation in the House or to use the system to acknowledge some genuine outstanding achievement in the recipient’s field.
(It also had the more beneficial effect of introducing women to the Lords since the vast majority of titles are inherited through the male line exclusively.)
At present there are around 800 hereditary peers all of whom, until the 1999 House of Lords Act, had the right to sit though many of them chose not to. It is not easy to give a precise figure for the current number of life peers but the closest figure appears to around the 700 mark. At the last count a total of 1,374 life peers have been created since the passing of the 1957 Act, more than half of them by the last four Prime Ministers. In addition there have been a number of life peerages granted to hereditary peers who were not among the 92 chosen to sit in the House, a situation which arguably only makes Blair’s dilettante efforts at reform even more of a dog’s breakfast than it already is.
That then is where we are. Where can we go from here?
The most contentious aspect of this proposal is the re-establishment of the hereditary peers as the “core” of the HoL and for that reason it is necessary to ague the point first and in some detail.
The principle argument in favour of a core of hereditaries as that they are beholden to nobody and nothing other than their own consciences. A secondary argument is that they are probably (ironic as it may seem) more broadly representative of the British public than the modern politician.
In an article for the Daily Telegraph when peers were called on to elect a replacement for Lord Reay three years ago, Peter Oborne commented:
In last week’s courteous but keenly contested by-election, Lord Borwick was up against 22 rivals, almost all of whom had impressive experience that would have been invaluable to Parliament. Lord Albemarle has worked in design in Europe and the US; Lord Hemphill in investment management and education; Lord Harrowby is a chartered surveyor with extensive experience of managing his family estates; Lord Massereene and Ferrard (Ukip) is a Yorkshire farmer; Lord Morris ran a small internet firm; Lord Stockton is a former Telegraph journalist.
The days when peers of the realm owned large tracts of Britain and spent the afternoons dozing in their gentlemen’s clubs are a thing of the past, if not largely a thing of myth. There is a pool of talent which, as Oborne points out, “would have been invaluable to Parliament” were it not for a dyed-in-the-wool idea that “elected, good; inherited, bad”.
Inevitably we need to ensure that this core will be sturdy enough to provide the stability which is needed. While no peer would be excluded (though there could be case for imposing an age limit, perhaps) there would need to be an undertaking to play an active rôle in the business of the House. There are many ways that can be interpreted and many ways it can be subsquently enforced; these are for whoever brings this, or any similar proposals, into force. At a guess the number of acive peers is unlikely to exceed around 200 though if there was a danger of the numbers (see below) becoming unwieldy some form of election might be necessary.
There are certain “offices of state” retirement from which has traditionally been accompanied by at least the offer of a peerage, Prime Minister and Speaker of the House of Commons being the obvious ones though holders of the other three major offices (Home, Foreign and Chancellor) have often been included as have retiring Chiefs of the Defence Staff and Archbishops of Canterbury. Continuing this practice should strengthen the core further.
Since the passage of the Parliament Act 1911 which limited the power of the Lords to delay legislation there has developed an understanding that the Lords do not seriously amend or unduly delay Bills which seek to enact manifesto commitments of the governing party in the Commons. It seems, judging by recent events, that this understanding is in danger of being substantially weakened and in a reversal of the situation in which Asquith found himself in 1910 it is an alliance of Labour and Liberal-Democrat peers (and a few others of what might be called the Opportunist Party!) seeking to disrupt Conservative legislation.
All is fair in love and war and parliamentary skullduggery but the mess left behind by the unfinished reform of the House has the potential to leave much of the government’s timetable at the mercy of appointees, either political or “social” who, unlike the hereditaries, are at least to an extent beholden to their patron. (Conversely, of course, one can assume that were the government of the day to be more leftward inclined, its Bills might well enjoy an easier passage and less robust scrutiny with results reminiscent of the Dangerous Dogs Act and other examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences.)
The solution is to replace the run-of-the-mill life peers with Peers of Parliament who will sit in the Lords only for the duration of the parliament. There is no reason not to have these appointed by the political parties by whatever method they choose to adopt (including patronage!) since one essential condition should be that the number to be appointed should be independently determined and must reflect the proportion of the popular vote each party received at the General Election.The Electoral Commission would seem to be the obvious candidate for this task.
These arrangements would provide a House of Lords which builds on its own valued traditions, makes use of the expertise of former holders of senior positions within the British establishment, provides the government of the day with a reasonable chance of getting its legislative programme through and at the same time goes some way to redress what some people see as the “democratic deficit” inherent in the FPTP electoral system.
And I commend it to the House!