British politics relies on a complex system of checks and balances in order to placate the constant threat of elective dictatorship that plagues the delicate nature of our unwritten constitution. The Upper House is the most prominent resource for checking the actions of Parliament and the executive, providing a body of expertise and ensuring that legislation is verified. However, at present the House of Lords finds itself in a purgatorial state in which its composition is largely controlled by the very person whose actions it is supposed to be scrutinising, rather than the more legitimate options of an independent commission or, indeed, the electorate. The almost fully appointed present upper chamber, and the system of prime ministerial patronage, allows no guarantee of fair representation for the people, Parliament or even the Labour Party. While a clear need for a more legitimate House of Lords prompts the assumption that reform is necessary, the nature of such changes has caused an enormous amount of disagreement within the House of Commons, thus delaying a second phase of legislation following the long overdue, although not yet completed, removal of hereditary peers.
New Labours November 1999 Lords reforms helped to reduce the previously sizeable Conservative majority. Two particularly controversial cases, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act of 2000 and the Hunting Act of 2004, have indicated, however, how influential even the small remaining majority can be. In both instances, the Government facilitated the Parliament Act (1949), used only four times since its establishment, in order to bypass the Lords objections. However, the Upper Houses rejection of broadly libertarian and popular measures were portrayed, perhaps correctly, as examples of attempts to obstruct Parliaments right to represent the people.
The ability of the House of Lords to serve the electorate well is dependent on the degree to which it is representative of their views and needs. Most Upper Houses, in accordance with the ideals of democracy, therefore contain directly elected members. However, the British political system is distinct from others in Europe, as are the requirements of our second chamber. Lord Wakeham, in his report regarding the second phase of reforms, noted that the role of the Upper House should be as a revising and deliberative assembly, not seeking to usurp the Commons (Wakeham, Lord (2000), A House for the Future; Report of the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords). If both houses shared the equal legitimacy of a fully elected chamber, the power differential, which has been established on an incremental basis over many years, may be put at risk. Situations of gridlock between the two houses, resulting in the stalemate sometimes seen in the US, would seem probable. The risk of party domination would also be present if a fully elected second chamber was formed, with candidates lining up behind manifestos and whips becoming more powerful. It must also be remembered that, at present, there is no certainty that appointees will remain loyal, as was exemplified by many Labour life peers reactions to the Hunting Bill (2004).
The most popular proposal in the February 2003 vote on the Joint Committee for House of Lords Reforms seven options was an 80 per cent elected second chamber. The least popular option was an all appointed house; however, due to a lack of consensus, the status quo remains. Furthermore, such appointments presently rely on a system of patronage, whereby the Prime Minister is responsible for making the large majority of recommendations for appointments, rather than decisions being made by an independent commission. This process allows the Prime Minister an extraordinary degree of power within the Upper House. The ability of the Prime Minister to use membership of the Upper House as a reward for donors of funds or doers of favours seems particularly undemocratic. Like the present life peerage system, an Independent Appointments Commission could still bring specific expertise and experience to the House of Lords while circumventing many of the problems associated with patronage. The establishment of the House of Lords Appointments Commission in 2000 proved to be a step in this direction; however, a statutory independent appointments commission from both houses is a requirement acknowledged even by the Prime Minister himself.
The House of Lords has provided an important contribution to both Parliament and the electorate, most importantly in providing expertise in specific fields. However, the House of Lords, with a Tory majority, 92 hereditary peers and a prime ministerial patronage system of appointments, is unrepresentative of both Parliament and the people. Due to this lack of legitimacy, reform is necessary. However, a fully elected second chamber may challenge not only the relationship between the two houses, but also its ability to carry out duties effectively. Parliament now finds itself in a predicament whereby components of the system, which are clearly outdated, remain in place due to the more complex issues surrounding the question of election. Certainly, some degree of election into the second chamber is crucial if Britain is to sustain its democratic credentials; however, the highly delicate and individual system on which British politics is based dictates that, unlike other Western democracies, a proportion of the Upper House must be chosen for their specific ability to check, balance and aid Parliament through their expertise, rather than their ability to appeal to the electorate.
This is an edited version of Victoria Both’s winning essay.
Full version to appear here soon.