The Lords have been in the news for the wrong reasons lately, yet despite heavy criticism and some scandal, we may still need them—given a few changes here and there
The House of Lords’ recent vote to block the government’s bill on tax credits has brought the constitutional proprietary of the unelected House of Lords to the forefront of political debate.
Under the 1911 Parliament Act, the House of Lords is prohibited from voting down financial policy. However, this rule does not apply to secondary legislation, and therefore it was held that the Lords did not act unconstitutionally. Nevertheless, many politicians are using this as an opportunity to discuss the relevance of the House of Lords, and to ask whether it should be reformed or even abolished.
I believe that the recent vote overturning the tax credits is evidence that the House of Lords should not be abolished. If the scheme had been passed, an estimated £4.4 billion would have been cut from the welfare bill this year and £3.7 billion by the end of this Parliament. This would have cost 3 million households an extra £1,500 per year. Therefore, the House of Lords is a valuable tool in scrutinising and checking the power of the government. It enables legislation such as the tax credits to be checked, delayed and amended.
Some are advocating for the House of Lords to be reformed; namely, that peers should be elected rather than appointed. Supporters of this hold that it is undemocratic for the House of Lords to be made up of unelected peers, especially given the absence of any system to hold these peers accountable to the public. It is then deemed inappropriate that these unelected peers should have the power to make important decisions on how the country is governed.
I for one am not convinced however that electing peers will solve these problems. In fact, I believe this will create more problems than solutions.
First, with two elected chambers, the House of Commons would no longer be supreme. Second, electing peers would arguably result in the House of Lords being filled with politicians, rather than the wide range of individuals with expertise in different fields that currently constitute the House. Moreover, Peter Osborne commented in the Daily Telegraph that an elected House of Lords would never have the courage to stand out against public opinion. Therefore, if peers ceased to be appointed, the House of Lords would no longer provide checks and balances on the government.
However, I agree that improvements could be made to the House of Lords. It is absurd that in this modern-day era only 24 per cent of peers are female and less than 7 per cent of peers are from ethnic minorities. A much greater effort should be made to represent the public, including appointing younger people. Also, the number of peers allowed to be appointed and the length of this appointment is another area that could be revised. In 2013, a poll showed that 76 per cent of the public supported the idea of peers being elected for fixed terms, with just 11 per cent supporting the current system. This is sure evidence that the House of Lords must be reformed.
Nevertheless, although at times the House of Lords has appeared undemocratic, I believe that it is still incredibly useful to the British public and should not be abolished. The Lords are completely independent from the government, and can overturn unfair legislation. In the last Parliament for example, the government was defeated more than 100 times. The British people might complain that they are undemocratically elected, but in reality the House of Lords delivers a great deal of justice. Without a House of Lords, the House of Commons would have far too much power.
Historically, the House of Lords has always worked. It is part of the British heritage, and something that the British people should strive to keep intact. A modern-day contemporary society does not require change just for the sake of it.