This is the final of fifteen draft Bills in an Alternative Queen's Speech that sets out what a legislative programme might have looked like if a majority Conservative government had been elected. Read more about the initiative here.
For voters, Lords reform is a low priority, but we should not overlook the important role our upper house plays in our democracy. Plans for an 80% elected House of Lords could have enormously damaging ramifications.
First, history shows that the Lords has consistently resisted draconian laws. In 2005 it sat for thirty hours straight to oppose control orders. In 2006 the Lords changed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, a law which could have made it a crime to criticise a religion. Lords also blocked plans for some cases to be tried without a jury, and defeated Gordon Brown’s plans for 42 days pre-charge detention.
Second, the Lords boasts men and women of vast expertise and experience, from ex-Cabinet Ministers and business chiefs to scientists and religious leaders. It benefits from the contributions of the most informed, active and energetic experts in their field. The current reform proposals risk throwing away an expert and useful upper chamber and replacing it with a pale imitation of the Commons. The Lords would be stronger with past experience and vast expertise than no experience and no expertise.
Third, if Parliament does vote for an elected Lords, we should use the first-past-the-post system. Having lost the AV referendum, the Lib Dems now want to increase their power in the Lords by using a proportional system. This should be rejected.
Instead of rushing ahead with a reform that seems to serve one party's interest rather than the national interest, we should take pause and first consider carefully the purposes and powers of the Lords. Once we have established what they should be, and the balance of power with the Commons, we should then design any reforms of membership. This is one of those rare concerns that justify a Royal Commission, which we should initiate.
The Commission could consider proposals to strip peers of their title if they are sent to jail for a year or more, strengthen the Lords Appointments Commission’s scrutiny powers, introduce limited terms for newly appointed Lords, and initiate a voluntary retirement scheme for existing peers.