What to do with the House of Lords is one of the great constitutional questions – it has been asked for over a century. Since this coming year promises to be the one where Lords reform truly gets under way, I’m writing a four-part series of posts looking at the prospects for getting something approaching an answer in the next few years, and I’ll expand on a little on what I think the answer should be.
Part 1: The Harder the Conflict, the More Glorious the Triumph?
Part 2: Form and Function… Joined in Spiritual Union
Part 3: We Are the People
Part 4: The Choice…
The Harder the Conflict, the More Glorious the Triumph?
The reform act of 1832 ended the dominance of the noble families in the House of Lords who controlled many seats in the House of Commons. Over the next decades they lost what power they had over government in the United Kingdom and cabinet came to be composed almost entirely of MPs; the hereditary Lords slowly died on its feet. By the middle of the 19th Century, Bagehot remarked that the cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go look at it. He was one of the first high profile advocates for life peers, so that the House would become a chamber of ‘respected revisers’. While still a full chamber of parliament, with full veto rights, it had lost much of its vitality. A convention emerged that the Lords would not vote down a budget.
The House of Lords was still the highest court in the land, and when the government gave a respected Exchequer judge a life peerage in 1856, they resolved that it was unlawful for him to sit and vote in the House – he had to be made a hereditary peer instead, and peers strongly resisted too many of those being created. They saw the peerage as for people of great wealth and substance, not necessarily intelligent people.
For the century after the abortive attempt to create a life peerage for the House of Lords, six private member’s bills were proposed for this purpose, some by eminent and influential people like former Lord Chancellors, but none succeeded. The advocates of life peerages won a small victory in 1876 and the government was allowed by the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 to appoint a small number of temporary peerages, later for life, to sit and vote in the House.
As the radical Liberal government of 1905 came to power, the House of Lords (dominated almost entirely by Tories thanks to the patronage of people like William Pitt a century before) burst into action and began to seriously disrupt the Commons’ agenda. After threatening to find a way to stop Lordly interference in the King’s Speech in 1907, a select committee was established recommending a 400-strong House where hereditary peers be elected from within their own orders for the parliament with a small number of life peers. But nothing was done and the budget of 1909 was voted down by the upper house. It took a King’s threat of flooding the House with Liberals and two elections to pass the budget and the Parliament Act. This reduced their powers to a delaying veto for three sessions on general legislation.
This was, if you like, a blow to the guts for the Lords. Stripped of their ability to govern and then stripped of their absolute veto, many peers simply stopped attending. For decades after this point, Liberal and Conservative governments looked at ways of reforming and revitalising the Lords, though none of the proposals got anywhere. The Bryce Commission in the dying days of the First World War advocated 75% indirectly elected by MPs with the rest a mix of bishops and life/hereditary peers serving for 12 years a third retiring every four years. Proposals in 1922 from the same government suggested a limited number of appointed members, hereditary peers elected from their own order, and 350 members elected either directly or indirectly all term limited; though royals and law lords would still be appointed. This was after three successive King’s Speeches contained Lords reform. A Cabinet Committee was appointed in 1925 which didn’t report until two years later and proposed something similar to the 1922 resolutions.
Lords reform fell onto the back burner throughout the Great Depression and Second World War, but the reforming Labour government of 1945 arranged with the House of Lords a convention between the Leaders of both parties in the Lords that they would not vote down a government bill that was in the party’s manifesto on second reading. This became known as the Salisbury-Addison convention. They also convened an all-party conference two years later that reached no consensus on ways to further restrict the Lords delaying power to get through their coal and steel nationalisations. They settled on their proposals anyway and reduced the delaying veto to one session in the 1949 Parliament Act. This was the death blow to the old House and fewer and fewer members attended.
After the 1951 election, the Conservatives again tried to restart the all-party conference on the House of Lords and again in 1955 but again nothing came of it. The Leader of the House of Lords, the Earl of Home, seeing that the House of Lords was barely functioning on a skeleton membership to carry out its functions, proposed the Life Peerages Bill in the Queen’s Speech of 1957 which allowed the creation of life peers, including women. The bill passed in 1958 and it succeeded in reinvigorating the House.
In 1964, the new Labour government phased out the creation of hereditary peerages entirely, and inter-party talks in 1967 led to a white paper (stating government policy) with front bench support from across the Commons and wide support in the House of Lords on converting the House of Lords into an entirely appointed chamber and giving it a delaying veto of six months which would, in effect, replicate the current arrangement. The bill proposed with it was eventually abandoned in 1969 after an unholy alliance between Conservatives under Enoch Powell (who wanted an all-hereditary Lords) and Labourites led by Michael Foot (who wanted to abolish the House of Lords) delayed the bill beyond all reason.
The House of Lords was recovering from its nadir in the 50s and felt aggrieved that their preference for reform had been ignored, and henceforth started to improve their internal procedures because they knew reform wouldn’t be forthcoming. The 1970s were a turbulent time and despite the Labour party adopting a policy of abolition in 1978 and senior Conservatives wanting more to make it more powerful and 60% elected, directly or indirectly, in their party’s report by Lord Home of the Hirsel, the next twenty years were dominated by prime ministers and manifestos uninterested in constitutional reform.
In 1997, Labour came to power again, this time vowing to elect the Lords in two stages – the first removing the hereditary peers, which they did in 1999 leaving a chamber without any party majority. The second stage was proposed by the Wakeham commission who wanted between 15 and 35% directly elected with the rest appointed, considered by a joint committee of both Houses and was promised in four further Queen’s Speeches until the long-serving prime minister Tony Blair stepped down in 2007. His successor brought out another white paper (making five on Lords reform during the Labour government alone) but by this time the party had pretty much abandoned any hope of reforming the Lords because of big divides in the Labour party on the issue. Even when the Commons voted in 2003 on various proportions of elected to appointed, they voted all of the proposals down. In 2007, they voted by alternative vote on the proposals and came out in favour of 80% elected, though many MPs claimed to have voted tactically for the higher percentages of elected because they thought it was less likely to happen.
In 2010, the Conservative party won the most votes, but not an outright majority, on the manifesto commitment to seek a consensus on Lords reform. They went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats who increased their share of the vote on the manifesto commitment for a fully elected House of Lords. A cross-party committee was appointed to draft a bill which met very seven times and never saw a draft bill, taking eleven months to report instead of the six that were estimated. Instead the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg created a draft bill aiming for 300 members of which 80% are directly elected by proportional representation, 20% are appointed with an extra 12 bishops with all but the bishops having a fifteen year non-renewable term. This was sent to a joint committee of both houses and is currently under consideration. They were due to report after three months of consideration, which has now been extended to four.
Nick Clegg has been making a big issue of this – many commentators have suggested this is his flagship policy next year. he has already promised a House of Lords bill will be mentioned in the next Queen’s Speech in (we presume) May, but a bill has been promised many times in a King’s or Queen’s Speech which has not arrived. Even the Leader of the House of Lords, one Lord Strathclyde*, has said that we have to wait and see what is in the Queen’s Speech, and has himself stated that if there is to be any real chance of meeting the 2015 deadline for the first elections, a bill would have to be introduced by this Summer.
The Conservative party is highly divided on this issue in the Commons, almost united against it in the Lords, and the Liberal Democrats are united in favour of it in the Commons and heavily divided in the Lords. A survey suggests that four in five peers are opposed to the reforms. Despite Nick Clegg’s claims that he has the prime minister’s assurance that he is willing to use the Parliament Acts to force it through if the Lords do not agree to the proposals, there is still much that could go wrong.
Next time: Form and Function… Joined in Spiritual Union