By ripping up a 100-year-old convention that decreed unelected, unaccountable peers should not interfere in financial matters, the House of Lords has ensured its own demise.
This week’s events on tax credits make it clearer than ever that the House of Lords is an increasingly ridiculous relic of a bygone era that should have no place in a modern democracy.
Its defenders often argue the standard of debate in the Lords is superior to the Commons and it contains people with much needed expertise and wisdom.
This may have been true in the past, but as the debate this week clearly demonstrated this is largely nonsense today; the Lords is just as prone to partisan bile, political hackery and self-congratulatory virtue signalling, as is the Commons. The only difference is we can’t vote them out of office.
The Lords is packed full of expenses fiddlers, influence peddlers, rich party donors who have effectively bought themselves a peerage and failed politicians – plus 92 hereditary peers there by virtue of birth and 26 senior CoE bishops there because of the jobs they do.
No one has voted for a single one of them – and if they want to wield political power they should do what people in proper democracies around the world have to do and stand for election.
The calibre of some of the dodgy characters in the modern Lords can be summed up by the unedifying figure of Lord Sewel – until recently one of its leading lights and the man paid £85,000 of public money a year to ensure peers upheld decent standards of behaviour – who was last seen snorting cocaine from a prostitute’s breast using a rolled-up £5 note.
Even the size of the thing has become an international embarrassment. The Lords, with 826 members, is the second biggest legislative chamber in the world – after the National People’s Congress of China. In comparison the upper house in the US bi-cameral system – the Senate – consists of just 100 elected members making laws for a population five times the size of Britain’s.
If the US can make do with a much slimmer, more democratic system, why can’t we?
This bloated leviathan costs £87m a year to run, with many peers turning up to claim their £300-a-day tax-free expenses and make use of the excellent restaurants and bars that are heavily subsidised by the taxpayer.
In the last Parliament a whopping £360,000 was claimed by peers who didn’t even bother to vote.
One of my jobs is to teach the British constitution and I sometimes see students’ eyes widen with shock when I explain the key role the Lords play in making new UK laws.
One confused Chinese student said to me: “But I thought you said the UK was a democracy?”
It is hard to answer that one, but I try to explain that the position of the House of Lords is a result of a compromise struck in 1911 after Conservative peers provoked a constitutional crisis by trying to block David Lloyd George’s reforming “People’s Budget” introduced by the Liberal government.
The Parliament Act of that year decreed that the Lords could continue as a revising chamber on the strict understanding that it did not try to block matters relating to finance. That deal has held for 104 years – until this week.
For most of the intervening years a Conservative majority in the Lords observed the convention and deferred to elected MPs on money matters.
But now the Lords has an inbuilt left-wing majority, boosted by blathering bishops, and they have decided to defy convention and block a key plank of the Government’s attempts to reduce the UK’s £1.5 trillion debt mountain.
The 1911 Act was always seen as a temporary measure and the aim was eventually to introduce a second chamber “constituted on a popular rather than hereditary basis”. But all attempts at meaningful reform – most recently by the last coalition Government – have been thwarted.
But now all bets are off. The Constitutional Review announced by the Prime Minster should bite the bullet and recommend the complete abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement with an elected chamber of no more than 100 members. Get rid of the unelected, unaccountable peers – every last one of them. Democracy demands no less.