Two cheers for the House of Lords

This is an article I wrote for the excellent Scotland in Union web site in April 2015. With the passage of time and continued interest in the House of Lords and its reform it now  (August 2015) seems reasonable time to expand the brief link to Scotland in Union that was here previously and repeat the whole article. Enjoy.

Back in January the SNP web site sported a press release with the headline

SNP debate to end absurd House of Lords.

Like so much of their public posturing, that was both pretty blunt and, as we shall see, not completely accurate. The reality, as so often, was more subtle but with a truth in it that remained unspoken.

The ‘SNP debate’ was a House of Commons adjournment debate of 14 January on reform of the Lords sponsored by Pete Wishart, SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire. Here’s how he characterised ‘the other place’ in the debate:

The temptation for politicians is to stuff it full of their friends, cronies and placemen … and time-servers … the whole place is unreformable … a farce. It is a circus. It is not fit for purpose. It is anachronistic. It is ridiculous, absurd and bizarre.

Words like this play well to people who make claims about the amount of champagne peers consume and who post photos on social media of somnolent elderly gents in ermine robes slumped on red leather benches during sparsely attended debates (similar photos of the Commons have been proven to be a lie).

Once you get past this rabble-rousing both the debate and – it pains me to admit – Wishart himself sounded quite reasonable. Constrained no doubt by the conventions of the place (‘It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership Mr Howarth … ’) he even conceded that a country as large and complex as the United Kingdom needed a second chamber, although not this one. And the doubtless small band of fellow MPs who attended the debate came up with all sorts of ideas for reform of the Lords, of which more anon.

Let’s look at a few facts about the Lords.

First, their purpose, as described on their web site:

  • helping make laws, with bills considered by both houses of parliament before they become law. During several stages, the Lords examine bills line-by-line before returning them to the Commons with proposed amendments for final agreement and enactment
  • in-depth consideration of public policy, much of it in select committees – in the 2013-14 session, for example, Lords’ select committees produced 31 reports on subjects including economic affairs, EU powers and advances in science
  • holding government to account by scrutinising its work during question time and debates, when government ministers must respond. Again in 2013-14, members asked nearly 8,000 written questions and held 250 debates on issues ranging from child poverty to immigration.

My reading of the adjournment debate does not lead me to conclude that Wishart would dissent from any of these important functions for a second ‘democratic’ chamber in a UK legislature.

Second, their composition, compared with the Commons (figures adjusted from 2010 data on Commons web site)

lords figures

These numbers, their affiliation and means of selection start to get at the SNP/Wishart complaints about the place. In the less circumspect language of the SNP press release, he described the Lords as,

the most absurd anachronistic national legislature in the world. Unelected, bloated, now stuffed with over 800 cronies, donors and placemen.

The Lords is not the ‘most absurd … legislature in the world’ (check any undemocratic state) and it is not stuffed full of placemen etc. Over a quarter of the members are crossbenchers or have no political affiliation. None take the SNP whip because the party refuses to nominate anyone to an ‘undemocratic’ chamber. Curiously, this is not a problem that seems to concern their friends Plaid Cymru and the Greens, although it is a decision they share with Sinn Fein.

Of course, the Lords could benefit from reform. For example, I find it difficult to justify the presence of 26 bishops of the Church of England in the parliament of a diverse United Kingdom.

Here are other ideas for reform that came up in the Commons’ adjournment debate (there were more)

  • amended functions
  • continued selection by appointment, but a different method
  • election of members, perhaps by a system of proportional representation
  • abolition of the small number of seats reserved for hereditary peers
  • a fixed membership term
  • retirement at a set age
  • reduced numbers, perhaps proportionate to the Commons
  • simplify or abolish some of the traditions
  • other changes as part of larger scale constitutional reform such as a federal UK.

In other words there are plenty of possibilities. As Wishart himself conceded in the debate

I do believe a democracy as varied and of the size of the UK should have a revising chamber … There are numerous models around the world on how this could be achieved.

So his and the SNP’s call for ‘abolition’ is no more than a matter of headline-grabbing semantics.

But there is a key difference between other contributors to the adjournment debate and Pete Wishart. They genuinely want reform: he wants to destroy the United Kingdom. His talk of the iniquities of the Lords has only one purpose – to sow more doubts in the minds of Scots about the UK. It’s marginally more honourable than characterising parliament as ‘Westmonster’ or implying that MPs are ‘paedos’ but in essence it is no different, and it is hypocritical.

And what of the SNP’s proposals for parliamentary reform in an independent Scotland?

It’s easy – there are none. Their prospectus in the referendum for separation, Scotland’s Future, says only that

a parliament elected by the people … will continue on independence … The existing Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government provide a robust framework for the governmental arrangements of an independent Scotland (p. 354)

In other words they see neither a need for change nor even for a review to consider change, despite the fact that the parliament of an independent country would have radically different responsibilities from the current devolved arrangements.

This is particularly concerning given the SNP’s record of centralisation and control, not least

  • the creation of national police and fire & rescue services overseen by boards appointed by the Scottish government instead of elected local councillors
  • the dominance of parliamentary committee chairs and vice-chairs by SNP MSPs, and the perceived weakness of those committees, certainly compared with the Westminster system of select committees
  • new rules agreed at their spring 2015 conference for their Westminster MPs, including ‘no member shall within or outwith the parliament publicly criticise a group decision, policy or another member of the group.’ Applied to Holyrood such a rule would make the committee system inoperable
  • the ‘named person’ legislation for children
  • proposals to share NHS data with other agencies.

I claimed at the beginning of this post that the reality of Wishart’s position was more subtle than his parody of the Lords as a circus and a farce but that the whole issue contained a truth that remained unspoken.

His position in the debate was more subtle. The UK needs a second, revising chamber in its legislature. It’s just that an independent Scotland wouldn’t. Its single chamber parliament, perhaps dominated by the party of government as it is now, would be safeguard enough.

The unspoken truth in all this is that for Wishart and the SNP any deficiency in the House of Lords is the same as any deficiency, real or invented, in any institution or aspect of the United Kingdom. It’s merely another crowbar to drive a wedge between Scotland and its neighbours.

Of course the Lords needs reform. That’s why I give it only two cheers out of three. That’s what honest believers in the union do. Speak freely and criticise but argue for improvement, not add another grievance to an already long and mostly spurious list.

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