Cutting the Lords will help, Bercow, but Britain needs bolder reforms

House Of Lords

The BBC has reported that House of Commons Speaker has called on the House of Lords’ numbers to be cut.

The BBC reports that speaking at an event discussing how parliament could be modernised, the Speaker said:

"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,"

Around 800 members currently make up the chamber, making it one of the largest parliamentary bodies in the world.

No party has a majority in the chamber, but Conservative peers currently make up the largest faction with 204 life peers and 49 excepted hereditary peers.

John Bercow is right that the House of Lords’ numbers should be cut, but he does not go far enough.

The House of Lords is in desperate need of reform – or even replacement – something that is unlikely to take place under this Conservative government. New Labour made some progress, but in reality, they tinkered around the constitutional edges, striding away from radical change on this particular issue.

Without even partial elections, or appointments via a democratic process, the House of Lords dilutes Britain’s democratic system.

On top of this, the UK is a representative democracy. As Alan Johnson points out in a 2012 New Statesman/Electoral Reform Society report:

“Some 44 per cent of peers are from London and the South East; under a fifth are women and there are more peers aged over 90 than under 40.”

While an elected chamber would never be 100% representative of a population, the geographical and gender imbalances in the chamber are striking. True, London and the South East are Britain’s political heart, but the country’s law-makers should come from all over the country.

One obvious problem with the chamber is the remaining hereditary peers. The fact that a modern, Western democracy still has even a hint of hereditary-led law-making is archaic and unjustified in 2017. Such an archaic aspect needs to go.

There are plenty of alternative options: an entirely elected chamber, a chamber of experts and industry leaders allocated proportionally by parties in the House of Commons, a German-style upper house where the UK's nations and regions are given a real voice in the UK-wide decision makings.

There are plenty of options. What Bercow has said is correct, but there is room to be bold on this issue.

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How do the people and parties feel about House of Lords reform?

According to the BBC, Britain's three main parties all supported elections for at least some part of the House of Lords at the 2010 election.

As for the public’s views, just 5% supported a fully appointed chamber – which is now the case – back in 2012, according to a YouGov poll. Four in ten said they supported a partially elected chamber, and a further third said they favoured a fully-elected upper-chamber. Clearly, most British people favour reform.

The problem is that, as with other forms of constitutional and electoral issues such as federalism and proportional representation, reforming the House of Lords is not seen as a sexy and immediately-pressing political issue. At the end of the day, issues like the economy, immigration, education, health and foreign affairs will dominate, but the truth is, Lords reform is a vital step in revitalising our democracy, and ensuring that the people are the real shapers of UK law.

As most people said in the 2012 YouGov survey, “It is better to invite experts on the particular law being discussed to take part in committees and debates on the area they are an expert in; there is no need for them to become full members of the House of Lords.”