A Case for the House of Lords

On the 26th October 2015 the Government was dealt a major blow when the House of Lords voted to block their plans to make reforms to the system of tax credits. Much ado followed this result, with MPs from both sides of the political spectrum lambasting the Lords for intervening in the democratic process.

This outcome has reignited the debate over the House of Lords and put the issue of reform at the top of the political agenda once again. Critics of the Lords argue our Upper Chamber has acted undemocratically by blocking a piece of legislation, which passed through the elected House of Commons. Indeed, last October was the first time in 100 years that the Lords have voted down a financial package backed by MPs in the Commons.

The House of Lords in session. (Photo by UK Parliament / CC BY-NC 2.0).
The House of Lords in session. (Photo by UK Parliament / CC BY-NC 2.0).

Since the debacle there has been a significant backlash from the Conservative Party, with the government ordering a rapid review by Lord Strathclyde into this ‘constitutional crisis’ in Britain. The Party’s frustration is understandable but attacking the Lords is not the answer. As Conservatives we must defend the House of Lords as one of the most vital institutions of our parliamentary democracy.

Calls to ‘flood’ the chamber with a selection of newly appointed Conservative peers is a dangerous and unhelpful suggestion, especially with public faith in the chamber at rock bottom. The Lords is already the largest unelected Second Chamber in the world and the only one of its kind to be bigger than its respective Lower House. Packing it with new members at the expense of the taxpayer is neither expedient nor cost-effective.

Far from being a ‘constitutional crisis’, the actions by the House of Lords show the chamber is functioning properly. The job of the House of Lords is to inspect and examine bills passed through the House of Commons and to return bad policy to the Lower House for review. The decision to block the tax credits bill should be respected as not only were the proposals not included in the Government’s manifesto but the changes were also opposed by a large section of the public. The House of Lords is rightly supposed to provide checks and balances on the power of the House of Commons and this is exactly it did with its response. It was sent a bill that appeared unfinished and not ready to be made law, and subsequently returned it to the Lower House for reconsideration.

The most vocal critics argue that this is yet another reason to replace the House of Lords with an elected Senate, a system seen in other countries including the United States. However, radical reform such as this would undermine the House of Lords’ advantage as a chamber full of expertise by replacing it with elected politicians who, like MPs, are more concerned about staying popular with the public than scrutinising law. Furthermore, an elected Upper Chamber could become too powerful and create a new era of political gridlock as we have seen on several occasions in the US congress.

Gridlock in Washington has led to government shutdowns in recent times. (Photo by KAZ Vorpal / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Gridlock in Washington has led to government shutdowns in recent times. (Photo by KAZ Vorpal / CC BY-SA 2.0).

There are clearly issues to address with the House of Lords but making it elected is a bad idea. There are other ways of making it more streamlined and independent without changing its underlying structure. Firstly, there should be more restrictions within the appointment process. Greater transparency and further limitations should be put in place to make it harder for parties to pack the chamber with their own peers.

The Lords also needs to be further separated from party politics – independence of thought is key to having an effective and functional Upper House. Members should be appointed on the basis of their valuable experience and expertise rather than their ranking within a political party. This will allow representation from a wide range of professionals and cohorts and ensure that proposed law is properly scrutinised without interference from party whips.

If there is anything the recent tax credit fiasco has taught us, it is that the House of Lords, although by no means perfect, is still capable of doing its job. Instead of attacking the Lords for this, the Conservatives should use this an opportunity to refine and improve a piece of legislation that ultimately wasn’t ready for implementation, both practically and politically. The Lords is an absolutely essential body for holding our elected Government to account; let’s not allow Party politics interfere with this.

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