Leader: Lords must answer to voters

There are more substantial reasons for supporting reform of the House of Lords than the actions of one foolish man. Picture: PA
There are more substantial reasons for supporting reform of the House of Lords than the actions of one foolish man. Picture: PA
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Second chamber is vital, but SNP is right to seek radical reform to end party patronage

THE House of Lords is both an anachronistic affront to democracy and a necessity. A powerful chamber filled with political cronies appointed through the patronage of party leaders is not at all in keeping with a modern democracy. Yet the Lords perform an essential role, revising legislation proposed in the Commons, and hearing amendments which might otherwise be ignored.

Peers must face election, and their terms of office must be finite

We believe that the case for the retention of an upper house is solid yet deplore the current system which means the Lords is packed with those who are there – without the permission of the electorate – because of who rather than what they know.

The SNP MP Angus MacNeil has, for some years, been a vocal critic of the Lords. His party famously refuses to nominate candidates to the second chamber, and he has repeatedly led calls for reform. It appears that he might now be gaining momentum behind his case for an improved upper house.

MacNeil has asked all of those standing for the vacant leadership of the Labour Party – and new Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron – to sign up to an SNP proposal that parties should stop nominating new members to the House of Lords as part of an attempt to put pressure on the government to have the institution abolished ­
or replaced. Labour leadership front-runner ­Jeremy Corbyn has signalled his support for the Nationalists’ plan. Pressure on others to do likewise can only now grow.

The case of Lord Sewel, a former Scotland Office minister under Tony Blair’s premiership, who was exposed in a tabloid newspaper last week for snorting cocaine with prostitutes, has placed reform of the upper house back at the top of the political agenda; many have suggested Lord Sewel has brought the second chamber into disrepute.

But there are more substantial reasons for supporting reform than the actions of one foolish man behaving recklessly. If we, as a nation, believe in the importance of democracy, then surely the fact that those who sit in the Lords – talented and hard-working though some undoubtedly are – do so without any mandate from the electorate is simply wrong. Power through patronage is incompatible with a belief in the importance of elected politics.

We also share the concerns of campaigners who point out that a number of those who sit in the Lords appear to do little more than claim their allowances: over the past five years, more than £1.6 million has been paid to peers who did not speak in the chamber at all.

Once a peer is nominated to the Lords, he or she is there for life, enjoying lavish allowances without the need to justify their political existence. This is simply indefensible. Peers have huge influence on the lives of members of the public and, in return, members of the public must have a say in who legislates on our behalves.

MacNeil is pushing an important issue and deserves a full hearing and the support of any politicians who consider themselves at all progressive. The House of Lords has undergone some reform in recent years – the removal of hereditary Peers for example – but there is still much more to be done before the upper house is fit for a modern democracy.

Farron last week described the Lords as being “rotten to the core”. This may have tended towards the hyperbolic, but he did identify the breadth and depth of reform required. There must be no more tinkering around the edges; instead, the House of Lords must transform. Peers must face election, and their terms of office must be finite.

A powerful, thoughtful second chamber is a crucial part of a healthy democracy. We reject the arguments of those who would do away with the Lords entirely.

But the House of Lords in its current form is not fit for purpose. Reform – real, substantial reform – is urgently required.