7 options for future of the House of Lords

House Of Lords

With the BBC reporting that Speaker John Bercow has called for the House of Lords to be slimmed, here are seven possible futures for the chamber.

According to the BBC, Bercow said at a modernising parliament event:

“"One can argue the toss about the size of the House of Commons, but as far as the House of Lords is concerned, it's frankly patently absurd that the House of Lords is significantly larger than the House of Commons.”

That's one option, but what other options are there?

1. A partially-elected chamber

Britain is a country known for its gradualism so the next step in the chamber’s future might be a small change towards a partially-elected chamber. Such an option was on the table during the coalition years, but it never quite made it into law. The BBC reported back in 2012 that a joint Commons and Lords report recommended that four in five Lords should be elected, with just 20% appointed.

It also proposed a cut in members to 450, something that would please John Bercow.

2. A fully-elected chamber

Then again, a future Labour government, already brimming with radical ideas, could go the whole hog and replace the Lords with a fully-elected upper-chamber. In principle, such a reform sounds like a good idea, however, if such a chamber were to be elected via a proportional system, as has been the case for every new political-body in the UK since 1997, questions about democratic legitimacy would arise. Under the current system, the Commons is clearly the country’s main and most powerful legislative-body, but an upper-chamber with more democratic legitimacy due to its fairer voting system would weaken the Commons’ claim that it should be the country’s central law-making chamber.

House of Commons Chamber: Speaker's table

3. No more hereditary peers and bishops

Another baby-step in the right direction would be to remove, the remaining 91 hereditary peers and even the 25 bishops that sit in the chamber. Such a move would be seen as a minor reform, but it would be a step in the right direction.

4. Abolish the chamber altogether

One solution could be to abolish the chamber altogether. Such an outcome would leave the House of Commons with even more power, leaving it up to committees and opposition MPs to scrutinise the government. On the whole, unicameral legislatures are rare, especially for bigger countries, but it could offer a temporary answer until a viable new chamber is thought of and set-up.

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP support this option.

Nicola Sturgeon

5. The German system

In Germany, the Bundestag is the equivalent of Britain’s House of Commons, and elects its MPs via a mixed member proportional voting system. In order to remain chancellor next weekend, Angela Merkel will need to command a majority in this chamber.

As for the country’s upper-chamber, each of Germany’s sixteen state governments sends members to the Bundestrat, with bigger states having more of a voting power than smaller states, but not in a completely proportional sense so as to give all states a voice in the chamber. On top of this, state governments must cast all their votes together. If the SPD-Green coalition government in Hamburg agrees on something, all of its votes will be cast together. If there is disagreement, the delegates will usually abstain. Such a system could be the answer to give representation to nations and regions across the entire UK while boosting the chamber’s democratic legitimacy.

Emmanuel Macron & Merkel European Council meeting

6. The status-quo

Another option is to keep things as they are, and for the foreseeable future, this option seems most likely. The Conservative government is unlikely to change the system in the coming years, so for now, the country is probably stuck with this option.

7. A waiting-list Lords

One final option, and one that could catch on with those looking for a gradualist approach is a slimmed down House of Lords, e.g. 400 – 500 members with fixed terms of say ten or fifteen years. Governments could choose to reappoint members or let them go, allowing a Lord-candidate on a waiting list to take their seat. Such a system would appeal to those who agree with an unelected upper-chamber's ability to scrutinise the government, but would deal with the immediate concern that the chamber is far too big.