Lord Sewel’s scandalous departure from the House of Lords following an alleged incident involving class A drugs, prostitutes and their underwear, demonstrates that the House of Lords is no longer fit for purpose.
Recently, whilst on a tour of the Palace of Westminster the guide asked the group which house in Parliament was the “upper house”? Arrogantly, I muttered “the Lords, obviously“. I was shot down. He explained that within Parliament many now consider the elected Commons the “upper house“. Logical though his reply was, I was shocked. Here was a man physically within Parliament who was privy to conversations between those who work there, telling me that the “upper house” lacked respect due to its unelected nature.
How then can an advisory chamber such as the Lord’s be effective in its role, without commanding the respect of the elected Commons? The answer is simple, and one which has been echoing through the corridors of Westminster since before the 2010 general election. The benefits of an elected Lords are obvious, an increase in both the chamber’s accountability to the public and additionally making it more democratically legitimate.
However, an elected Lords has its inevitable disadvantages. The presence of two elected chambers in such close proximity, literally a corridor away from each other, would inevitably lead to conflict. When the two Houses had similar powers at the start of the last century, parties were willing and often did use their presence in the Lords to actively disrupt government business. This method was eventually rendered impossible by the passing of the Parliament Act 1911 and the removal of the Lord’s veto power. Yet the return of an elected upper house could see similar such scenarios occurring again.
Equally, the presence of not one but two chambers filled entirely with politicians, is an unpleasant idea to many voters. One of the main benefits of the Lords is its ability to recruit life peers who are experts in their fields. Professor Robert Winston, a pioneer of IVF procedures and Andrew Lloyd Webber, of Phantom of the Opera and other West End mainstay fame, both sit in the Lords and have the ability to advise on policy. The presence of expert opinion is a positive attribute of the House which could be lost if the Lords became entirely elected.
Of course the great losers in the idea of an elected house would be some 92 hereditary peers in the Lords who are the descendants of the great political families of the centuries past. There positions are secured by family name and stand out in the twenty-first century as perhaps the least democratic members of the Lords.
As much as the most devout traditionalist would like to think that the Lords remains a bastion of political knowledge with the potential to produce Prime Ministers such as Palmerston , the only way it can assume its proper place as the advisory house is to reform. An elected Lords would be one such was of achieving this and bringing the chamber’s democratic legitimacy in line with twenty-first century expectations.