Nicholas Quin: Don’t sacrifice the Lords for short term aims

AS far as constitutional reform debates go, the argument over the future of the House of Lords is far from dull. It’s been tearing apart coalition peers while they have agonised over the Welfare Reform Bill and upset the apple cart over the Health and Social Care Bill. These debates don’t often intrude on casual conversations, but a friend told me over coffee that there should be an age limit introduced into the upper chamber to improve what it does.

The House of Lords Reform Bill promises to upset 101 years of steady change since the Parliament Act, and hundreds more of tradition. It will cut the number of peers to 300 (240 elected, 60 appointed), elected on 15-year, one-term cycles. “Senators”, if they take on that American name, would have the same role as Lords do now, but in theory would be more accountable. So far so boring.

But, as Nick Clegg took to comparing the current system to Burkina Faso, Lords have been standing their ground; Parliament has been worked into a frenzy. It’s brought out some colourful comments too. A Conservative peer Lord Dobbs, the author, said: “The Lords often acts as a great composting machine – rubbish in, rather more fertile and fragrant stuff out. We peers are the worms of the Westminster Field. Ah, but elect me, and I would become a very different beast.”

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Meanwhile, a Cabinet Minister was quoted saying “if you’re an MP faced with an elected senator in your constituency purring about in his Jaguar with a higher salary than you, going to all the hospital openings, but not doing the social security casework, you’re not going to like it much”.

What makes it all the more interesting is that the Lords seems to be at the height of its powers right now. In the last months, while the House of Commons has debated little by way of new laws, the Lords has sat into the night to disrupt the drawing of new constituency boundaries, caused the government headaches over welfare, and opened up rifts in thecoalition over the NHS. It’s gone about its work line by line, clause by clause, and made real differences to the course of legislation.

The truth is that the 800 peers in the Lords do a unique job in British politics. Away from the demands of a constant election cycle, able to pursue complicated, minority and difficult issues away from the white hot glare of Commons work, their work is often completely different. The average age of peers is 68, and they bring experience from outside politics to bear on the laws of the land.

But they are not elected. Although the last government removed 90 per cent of hereditary peers, it is an archaic, incomprehensible system to many.

Average daily attendance between 2000 and 2010 only crept above 400 (50 per cent) in three years. It is more than double the size of the upper chambers in France, Italy, Spain and India; eight times the size of the US Senate. Those chambers provide checks and balances, and are either elected, part elected or indirectly elected. Our system is expensive, out of date, and exclusive.

Most agree that there should be reform, whether that means full elections, a more transparent appointments system or procedural reforms. The creation of people’s peers, creation of an elected speaker, separation from the Supreme Court and removal of hereditary peers were significant moves in the right direction by the last government.

But the appointments system is still managed behind closed doors, and for many the chamber just isn’t representative of 21st century Britain.

However, the debate about the House of Lords threatens to eat up Parliamentary time, and distract politicians professional and amateur at a time when there are bigger imperatives.

With 2.68 million people unemployed, an economy that isn’t growing and trouble for the Government on multiple fronts, this shouldn’t be the focus of anyone in SW1. And with boundary changes around the corner, continued pressure for voting reform, referenda on elected mayors, police commissioners and the future of Scotland on the way, there are more pressing constitutional matters to attend to as well.

Perhaps of more concern, the House of Lords has stood the test of time as part of our unique, evolving constitution. Changing it now to heal rifts in the coalition, or satisfy the egos of certain ministers, is not the way to build a lasting institution fit for the 21st century and beyond. The debate, however colourful it may become, is about an important reform, not an imperative reform. The House of Lords is doing its job well – that should not be sacrificed to serve short term political aims, and it should not be allowed to distract from the key priorities of the government and legislature.

After all, the friend who proposed an age limit to me hastened to add that she would advocate a minimum age limit: pointing to the experience of some luminaries in the upper chamber and explaining that no one under the age of 60 need apply.