House of Lords reform: is Corbyn right?

Jeremy Corbyn has recently signalled his intention to abolish the upper chamber of parliament: the House of Lords. In an announcement at the end of May the Labour leader said that all future Labour Peers must pledge that they, if the opportunity arises, will vote for the abolition of the Lords. In the event of such abolition, Corbyn would replace the House of Lords with a new wholly elected Chamber. Corbyn’s proposals for reform are not without merit; there are certainly compelling criticisms that can be levelled at the House of Lords in its current form. However, all the problems surrounding the Lords cannot be wholly solved by Corbyn’s proposals, thus this piece seeks to outline the further issues surrounding this debate.

It is often said that the House of Lords lacks democratic legitimacy, it being a wholly unelected body. This argument, however, can be rebutted by pointing out that House of Lords’ law-making ability is rightfully limited: the Parliament Act 1911-49 stipulates that the House of Lords only has the right to delay the passing of legislation. Specifically, the 1911-49 Act provides that the Lords can delay the enacting of a money Bill by a month and other Bills by a year. Moreover, the Salisbury Convention (not legally binding but of persuasive value) further caps the legislative powers of the Lords, it providing that the House of Lords should not reject a Bill that implements a manifesto pledge and for which the government has an electoral mandate. Crucially, however, the above does not render the Lords redundant as the chamber can still provide an effective check on the Commons’ powers by provoking a reconsideration of policy. For instance in 2015 the House of Lords voted to delay George Osborne’s proposed tax credit cuts, forcing a rethink on behalf of the, then, Cameron government. This ability to hold the House of Commons to account may be compromised if the chamber was to become one that is fully elected because members or potential members may feel more compelled to vote with the party with which they are affiliated (in order to be chosen as the party’s candidate for Peerage) instead of conducting a more thorough examination of the relevant policy. A wholly elected upper chamber thus runs the risk of undermining a report made by the Royal Commission 18 years ago – yet still relevant – that affirmed that the House of Lords should remain ‘distinctively difference’ to the House of Commons, and with the role of making ‘the House of Commons think again’. Going forward, therefore, if the Lords are to become elected, there is a strong argument that a greater proportion of members should have no party affiliation, in order for the effect of party politics to be kept minimal.

In light of the above it is submitted that a better criticism of the Lords is not the fact that it is unelected per se, but rather that the consequences of this election procedure have proved, in reality, to yield unacceptable practice. Notably, there have been findings of a significant link between life peerages and party donations, the Guardian in 2015 reporting that ‘An exhaustive study by Oxford academics has statistically proven the relationship between donations to parties and nominations for peerages’. It cannot be right that securing a place in the law-making process in the UK can be influenced by the donations made to a particular political party. It would be far preferable for Peerage to be appointed on, if not a democratic basis, a truly meritocratic basis.

Leading on from the above point, the appropriate composition of the House of Lords should also be re-examined. For example, there are currently 26 Bishops that sit in the Lords, the chamber reserving a portion of their seats for such representatives of the Church of England. This is surely in need of review. Firstly, it is arguably no longer appropriate for such allowance of the Church of England’s influence in the law-making process, when the UK has become more religiously diverse and with fewer and fewer citizens identifying as being members of this Church. Additionally, on a more general note, it is questionable whether it is even appropriate for a religious body to be given such a privileged position in the political affairs of the UK, and whether we should seek to move to a more modern and secular model. Incidentally this concern has been recognized, the House of Lords Reform Bill (introduced into Parliament in 2012, although later withdrawn) proposing to limit the number of spiritual leaders in the Lords to 12. Corbyn’s proposals would go further than this, not reserving any special place for the Church of England, and for reasons of equality and fairness, it is compelling to say that this position is preferable.

Article by Helen Taylor

Photograph: Sky News

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