Debate about the House of Lords has gone on for decades. Some argue that it is undemocratic and unaccountable, while others insist that its existence guarantees good policy-making.

There can be little doubt that the Lords is largely undemocratic — something that the recently appointed 28-year-old Baroness Carmen Smith has herself admitted. No peers have ever been elected, and there remain 92 hereditary peers in the Lords at any one time. Naturally, the argument goes that a body with such an impact on legislation should not be composed of those who are unaccountable to the people they purportedly serve. A lack of accountability can lead to a lack of concern for ordinary folk, and amendments and votes grounded mostly in self-interest. Granted, this is not the best way to scrutinise legislation in a liberal parliamentary democracy.

But then, what are the alternatives to the House of Lords?

The House of Lords Scrutinised

Governments often face difficult decisions that voters may not be prepared to deal with. Having an unelected body with the experience and expertise to make tough decisions when required can therefore be useful. As long as those in the Lords faithfully act in the national interest, their presence remains vital to ensuring that certain bills never get passed if these have the potential to create more harm than good.

Yet another issue with the Lords is that it is too party-political. Prime ministers do have the power to appoint life peers, as has recently been witnessed by the appointment of David Cameron to the chamber. Some of these are done well. For instance, Ken Clarke was given a peerage in 2020 by Boris Johnson after many years of service in the Commons and government. In this case, his experience was rightly deemed useful for scrutinising legislation. Indeed, Lord Clarke has not been afraid to criticise the Conservative government on divisive issues such as the Rwanda policy. But in other cases, the history of peerages has been peppered with scandal. There was Lloyd-George’s ‘cash for patronage’ in 1922; Wilson’s ‘lavender list’ in 1976; Blair’s ‘cash for honours’ in 2006; and the appointment of 29-year-old Charlotte Owen, a Johnson staffer, in his resignation honours list.

Though certain spurious peerages have been blocked by the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC), while prime ministers retain the power to appoint peers, the fundamental problem of unsuitable appointments will remain — and the House of Lords will keep expanding at a rate of knots.

How to Solve a Problem Like the Lords?

Can anything be done to solve these ancient squabbles? Arguably, yes.

First, the prime minister’s patronage powers must be revoked. Prime ministers are not impartial enough to judge who is best placed to determine the country’s future policy. The temptation to reward friends, allies and colleagues is too much of a risk to take.

Second, the decision-making over appointments should be in the hands of an independent commission. HOLAC, for example, could be reinforced to provide sober nominations. As well as this, all current peers should face a comprehensive review of their abilities and expertise.

Third, all those in the Lords must formally renounce any party affiliation. Any votes and debates must be conducted strictly with the aim of making good policy. If the knowledge and expertise are there, there should be no need for peers to rely on their party’s status quo for guidance.

Fourth, hereditary peers should be abolished — period. These peerages are a relic of the past that frankly has no place in the modern world. Life peers who can contribute vital expertise should be retained. As for the rest, they must be removed for the sake of the country and the principles of meritocracy.

Finally, peers should be utilised in government. If someone has specialist expertise, it makes sense to involve them in the day-to-day running of government. Lord Timpson, for example, would be very useful as an adviser on building a constructive relationship between businesses and workers. Numerous peers have also been high-ranking officials in the armed forces — why not use their expertise in the Ministry of Defence?

Britain is perhaps one of the only countries in the world that has the opportunity to create a ‘government of all the talents’ that is also, at least in part, democratically accountable. So, why aren’t we embracing it?

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