We can’t afford a new second chamber

There’s no money left in the kitty. This fact will define our politics for years to come and goes a long way to explaining why the Labour Party is so keen to focus on House of Lords reform. It is also the reason why these reforms won’t happen. It is tempting to think changes to the way we do politics costs nothing at all, but the truth is politics can be an expensive business, especially if you create a new group of well-paid politicians.

The House of Lords, as it is currently set up, is reckoned to cost about £120 million to run each year. Peers get a daily allowance and very few have any staff. Compare this to the House of Commons, with well-paid MPs and an average of six staffers each. The bill for the House of Commons is roughly £450 million a year, a figure likely to rise considerably.

It’s not hard to see that plans for a new ‘senate’ will end up costing hundreds of millions more than the chamber it will replace. When this becomes obvious it will quickly put a stop to any radical change. No one will seriously continue with plans that will take millions out of public services to fund a new breed of politicians. Common sense will quickly prevail.

Instead, more attention should be paid to proposals for sensible measures that would help re-establish the credibility of the House.

These plans would trim the size of the House over time and take away the power of Prime Minister to gorge on appointing new peers.

The House of Lords is too big, but not by much. The size of the House is widely mis-understood; the figure to look at is not the total number of peers but the daily attendance.

There are roughly 800 peers, who, unlike MPs, are part-time, and they largely only attend when they have something useful to contribute. About half attend on any sitting day. This figure is up over recent years but still well below the 640 or so MPs who turn up to the House of Commons most days.

Lord Cormack has taken on the role of parliamentary bouncer, suggesting a two out, one in system which would gently reduce numbers over a period of years.

There’s a retirement home feel to the House of Lords, one in four peers are former politicians. If we want independent peers with a zest for challenging the elected House, we might look a little further than retirees from the House of Commons for new talent. The same might be said of the trend for appointing former special advisors.

An unelected House might seem incongruous, but the public would be more accepting of a chamber that included independent-minded individuals with an obvious track record of achievement outside politics.

Too many appointments smack of patronage and rewarding chums. Lord Norton of Louth has proposed taking the decision to appoint peers out of the hands of party leaders. Instead, the House of Lords appointments commission, a body set up in 2000 to scrutinise new appointments, would be given a statutory role to recommend new peers based on merit alone. The public would be encouraged to nominate popular figures and unsung heroes who most likely would never stand for election. It might just encourage a bout of independent-minded peers with a background outside of politics. They would quickly become some of our most popular political figures. There is nothing wrong with supporting a political party, our democracy depends on it, but it shouldn’t be the only qualification for membership of a gently reformed upper chamber.

With these reforms to the House the hereditary peers could finally be removed. They were never meant to stay and have survived for almost a quarter of a century through political inertia. Their removal would reduce the House by almost 100, taking it close to a more manageable number.

One area that does raise eyebrows from time to time is the presence of the Lords Spiritual, senior clerics of the established Church pontificating on matters of state and society in a country quickly moving away from religious observance.

The 26 Lords Spiritual might appear an oddity but they provide a commentary badly missing in our political debate. The zealous reformer might want to do away with these ecclesiastical legislators but our politics would be poorer as a result.

These more modest would only need a little parliamentary time to become law, and they are radically uncontroversial. It could all be done on a Friday with a few willing MPs and peers encouraged  to turn up to pass a Bill already drawn up by Lord Norton of Louth.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be as simple as this. An incoming government will want to demonstrate reform, however badly thought through it might be. There will be a tussle between the Roundhead gentle reformers and cavalier rip-it-all-up revolutionaries before inertia and the facts of money become a deciding factor. Politics is a frustrating business.





Frank Young

Frank Young works for a leading Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity