House of Lords: Ministers 'feel less pressure from the north'

The lack of northern peers in the House of Lords means the region's voice is lost as London members shout loudest in arguing for money and focus from Ministers in the corridors of power. Arj Singh reports.

The House of Lords finds itself under greater pressure than at any point since the coalition Government attempted in 2012 to introduce elections to Parliament’s Upper House, but was thwarted by a massive rebellion from Conservative MPs.

Analysis shows London-centric Lords fails to represent YorkshireIt is under the microscope again as Theresa May’s flagship Brexit legislation returns on Monday after the Government was forced to overturn 15 defeats inflicted by peers.

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Tory pro-EU rebels emboldened by the Lords are still threatening to derail the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy, illustrating the influence of the unelected chamber.

Darren Hughes: Why it is time to consign the Lords to the dark agesOn the same day, MPs will debate the abolition of the Lords after 168,628 voters signed an online petition criticising the “place of patronage where unelected and unaccountable individuals hold a disproportionate amount of influence and power, which can be used to frustrate the elected representatives of the people”.

Opinion: Why the House of Lords' southern bias should be addressedNow new analysis for The Yorkshire Post by the respected Electoral Reform Society (ERS) lays bare the London-centric nature of the Lords, which plays a crucial role in line-by-line scrutiny of legislation, and is a forum for politicians to question and harry the Government’s Ministers.

The ERS was able to analyse expenses data for 564 of the 780 peers, finding that only 33 – or six per cent – of them reside in Yorkshire and Humber, despite the region being home to eight per cent of the UK’s population.

The North-West is even less well represented, with 28 peers, equivalent to five per cent of the upper chamber despite the region being home to 11 per cent of the UK population. But there are 142 peers in Greater London, double the number it “deserves” based on population. And the South-East is overrepresented by a third, with 105 peers.

Rothwell-born Lord Newby, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, explained why it matters: “There are Ministers in the Lords and politicians respond to pressure and the people who cry and shout loudest by and large in politics, as in life, tend to do better than those who don’t.

“If you’ve got a relatively small number of people able to make the case, that means if Ministers have got a debate about the problems in Yorkshire for example, they know that they are going to have an easier ride than if it were about problems in London, simply because there are fewer people around to take an interest in the issues.

“That feeds through to policy-making because if they think they can get away with something because they are under more pressure from lots of people from the South – if every time a Minister from the Lords goes into the corridor or goes into the tea room or the bar and somebody sidles up to him and bangs on about Crossrail 2, it has an impact.”

Former Transport Secretary Lord Adonis is a Londoner who has called for the abolition of the unelected chamber and its replacement with an elected federal senate sitting in the North of England.

“Where power lies, investment follows,” the Labour peer said.

“It’s no accident that the national capital is London; all of our political institutions are in London, it’s London that gets the lion’s share of public investment. That’s night following day.

“If there were significant political institutions in the North and lots of powerful politicians had to live in the North as a result, then investment and a lot of other worthwhile things would follow.”

Tory ex-Cabinet Minister Sir Eric Pickles said the regional imbalance “is almost certainly accidental”, suggesting governments do not even take the issue into account when appointing peers.

Sir Eric, who was appointed alongside eight other Tories in May, said: “It’s a bit like my intake, they weren’t sorted out geographically or anything like that, it’s serendipity how things happen.

“When (Tony) Blair came in, he sought to address what he considered to be the imbalance and appointed a whole load of Labour peers, in that there wasn’t any (regional) balance, he just put people in. When the coalition came in they wanted to address the imbalance and tended to do it in a relatively short period of time, part of the result of that is rather a lot of Liberal peers.”

But he agreed it is “certainly something that should be addressed” pragmatically.

A House of Lords spokesperson said: “Members of the House of Lords come from across the UK, but are not representatives of geographical areas.

“Members are appointed by virtue of their experience and represent nearly every profession including law, nursing, teaching, defence, engineering, music, television, and politics.

“No other senate in the world has such diverse members, or as broad a range of expertise. All members use their wealth of experience to debate crucial issues, and hold the government to account.”

What is the role of the House of Lords?

The existence of the House of Lords as a second chamber distinct from the Commons dates back to the 14th century, when it was composed of religious leaders, known as Lords Spiritual, and magnates, or Lord Temporal.

And over the centuries, government legislation, such as the 1958 law which allowed for an unlimited number of peerages for life, has shaped the role and make-up of what we see today.

In 2018, the House of Lords is a powerful fixture in British politics – independent from the Commons, but sharing the task of making and shaping laws and checking and challenging the work of the Government.

However, the perception of the historic institution as undemocratic has prompted a series of attempts to reform it, most recently in 2011 when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg presented the House of Lords Reform Draft Bill.

The Bill, which would have made the Upper House mostly elected, was backed in the election manifestos of both Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. But in the face of a Tory rebellion, the Government was unable to get the Bill through the Commons and it was withdrawn in 2012.

Currently, there are 780 members who are eligible to take part in the work of the House of Lords. The majority are life peers, while there are 26 archbishops and bishops and 89 hereditary peers.

Peers spend more than half their time in the House considering draft laws, which have to be considered by both Houses of Parliament before they become law. They also scrutinise the work of the Government during question time and debates, with 7,380 oral and written questions lodged last year and 154 debates held on issues from the role of libraries and independent bookshops to the impact of Brexit on the NHS.

As with their elected counterparts in the Commons, investigation of public policy through select committees is also part of the Lords’ work, with 41 reports produced during the 2016-17 session.

The highly polarising nature of the Brexit debate – and the role some say peers have had in frustrating the will of the people to leave the European Union – has seen it come under attack from sections of the media in recent weeks.

Make-up of the Chamber does not reflect election results

Britain’s two main political parties have found themselves underrepresented in the House of Lords relative to their performance in last year’s General Election in Yorkshire and Humber.

The Conservatives racked up 40 per cent of the vote in Yorkshire and Humber in June 2017, landing 17 MPs, but the party has only 10 peers from the region, 30 per cent of local total, analysis of official figures by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) showed.

Labour was even worse off, scoring 49 per cent of the vote in the region and getting 37 MPs elected, a figure now reduced by one following Sheffield MP Jared O’Mara’s suspension.

But the Opposition party, by contrast, has only five Yorkshire and Humber peers, just 15 per cent of the total from the region.

The Liberal Democrats fare the best, with seven Yorkshire and Humber peers despite the region not electing a single MP from the party.

It got just five per cent of the vote in Yorkshire and Humber at the General Election but has 21 per cent of the region’s peers.

Meanwhile, ERS analysis showed the most common career background for the region’s peers was working in politics.

More than a third – 12 – have a political background, including former MPs, MEPs and councillors, while six had a background in higher education.

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the ERS, said: “Yorkshire is not only underrepresented, but those peers who say they live in Yorkshire do not represent the diversity of the region – whether in terms of their politics or otherwise. Britain’s politics is dominated by the South – and it’s not hard to see why when the system is so unbalanced.

“When the Prime Minister can stuff a so-called scrutiny chamber with whoever they want, the result is that it fails to reflect the nation. That won’t be solved by bunging in a few more unelected cronies. Instead, a fairly elected chamber of the regions would ensure guaranteed, proportional representation for Yorkshire and a strong voice for the North. And it must use a fair voting system where seats match votes – not Westminster’s winner-takes-all stitch-up.”