The pros and cons of the House of Lords
Boris Johnson is considering reform that could see an elected upper chamber
Boris Johnson is planning a radical overhaul of the House of Lords as part of sweeping constitutional changes aimed at strengthening the UK and its union.
Aides to the prime minister are discussing whether the Lords should be an elected house, in a bid to give the UK’s constituent nations a greater say at Westminster.
The government will set up a “commission on the constitution” to look at possible reforms – including the role of the upper house – and it is expected to produce a report within a year.
Lord Strathclyde, a former Conservative leader in the Lords, told the Financial Times: “We need a stronger, more responsible second chamber, more directly accountable to people. There are many ideas as to how that could happen.”
So what do peers do and should they have a place in a modern democracy?
Who sits in the House of Lords?
The chamber currently has 796 peers, of which 675 eligible life peers, appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister. It also has 91 hereditary peers and 26 bishops.
The Conservatives have the highest number of peers (242), although no majority, followed by Labour (183) and the Lib Dems (94) and a handful from minor parties, as well as 187 crossbenchers, who are not affiliated with any party. High-profile appointments in recent years have included Alan Sugar and Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, who is Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon.
Members meet in Westminster and are expected to scrutinise bills approved by the House of Commons. While they cannot normally prevent laws from being passed, they can delay bills and add amendments that are then sent back for consideration in the Commons.
How much are peers paid?
Peers are not paid a salary but can claim a flat daily allowance of £157 or £313 if they attend a sitting.
One notorious anecdote reported in 2017 told of a peer who “left the taxi running” outside the chamber while he dashed in to claim his £300, according to The Daily Telegraph.
Lady D’Souza, who stepped down as speaker of the upper chamber in 2016, told BBC documentary Meet the Lords that many of her colleagues did nothing to justify their stipend.
“There is a core of peers who work incredibly hard, who do that work, and there are, sad to say, many, many, many peers who contribute absolutely nothing but who claim the full allowance.”
Members who already receive a ministerial or office holders’ salary cannot claim the flat rate.
What’s wrong with the current system?
With nearly 800 peers, the House of Lords is the world’s second largest decision-making body after China’s National People’s Congress. Campaigners such as the Electoral Reform Society argue that it is undemocratic that unelected peers should have such sway in British politics.
The current system also makes it very hard to get rid of politicians from the Cabinet. Downing Street announced this week that Nicky Morgan, who didn’t contest her seat in the general election and therefore is no longer an MP, is being made a Conservative peer in order to remain a member of Johnson’s Cabinet.And Zac Goldsmith, who did stand for election but lost his Richmond seat to a Lib Dem for the second time in three years, will also enter the House of Lords so that he can continue to attend Cabinet as environment minister.
What’s right about the House of Lords?
The Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne argued that the House of Lords continues to work remarkably well, throwing out what he calls “populist measures introduced by governments determined to bolster their right-wing credentials”.
An elected House of Lords would never have the will or the courage to stand up against public opinion, he argues, and would deprive the public of the judgement of “very valuable” peers, such as retired generals, trade union leaders, academics and judges.
What are the alternatives?
All the main parties have pledged to cut the number of peers, and many politicians agree that hereditary peers should be phased out.
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband previously proposed a wholly elected senate, with roughly proportionate numbers from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions, instead of MP-style constituencies.
Four years ago, the Lib Dems put forward a proposal to halve the number of members and ensure that at least 80% of peers were elected, but the plans were abandoned after an agreement with Tory opponents failed to be reached.
But now it seems that the Tories themselves may be at the vanguard of Lords reform. Government insiders, concerned about the threat the Scottish National Party poses to the union, are making plans to update the House of Lords so it better reflects the union’s constituent countries.
One person – briefed about the discussions on Lords reform among Johnson’s inner circle – told the Financial Times that the government was considering constitutional change in an attempt to “cement the union and make it more relevant for everyone”.