Ged Killen Rutherglen and Hamilton West
This week, MPs will have the opportunity to take part in a debate in Westminster Hall on House of Lords reform. The debate will cover a report by the Lord Speaker’s committee to reduce the House of Lords by a quarter to 600 Members and cap its size, with new Members appointed on a 15-year term.
The report also suggests that no political party should have an absolute majority and 20 per cent of seats should be reserved for independent crossbench Members. With 800 Members currently, few people would argue that having ever-increasing numbers is sustainable and any efforts to address this are welcome. That said, in my view, the report does not go far enough, not least because it fails to tackle the fundamental issue at the heart of the House of Lords: democracy, or lack thereof.
I believe that parliaments benefit from having a second chamber, it makes for better laws and it is preferable to the committee system used in the Scottish Parliament which, in the past, has been dominated by SNP MSPs who were unwilling to properly scrutinise or criticise the Scottish Government.
Having a bicameral parliament is good for democracy because it distributes power within two houses that check and balance one another rather than concentrating decision making in a single body. But, if we were to design the UK system from scratch in 2017, it would be unthinkable that anyone playing a key role in Parliament would be appointed rather than democratically elected.
The argument most often put forward by those who seek to preserve the House of Lords is that many of its inhabitants are experts in their field who can bring their own valuable insight, but there are also many experts in various fields in the House of Commons and they had to fight an election to earn their place in the Parliament.
If proponents of the current system believe that having an upper house with a broad range of skills and experience is important, this ought to be reflected in the way in which appointments are made rather than being left to the whim of successive party leaders and Prime Ministers. In his 6 years leading the country, David Cameron appointed 189 peers to the House of Lords. Personally, I wouldn’t trust the former Prime Minister to make me a cup of tea let alone to appoint lawmakers to the second chamber. Why should one person hold that level of control over the shape of laws that have still to come many years after they have left office?
The pace of change is slow and reform will not happen overnight. Significant Tory Government defeats show that Labour Lords are right to continue to play a role in the House of Lords while it exists in its current form but we must never lose sight of the democratic imbalance created by our current system. Only an elected upper house can address the fundamental unfairness at the heart of our democracy.