The Electoral Reform Society has published a short document entitled House of Lords: Fact vs Fiction, which claims to shatter myths about the House of Lords. It does no such thing. ‘Far from being a chamber of experts’, it declares, ‘the Lords is more often a chamber of ex-politicians’. The problem with this statement is that it derives from equating expertise solely with cross-bench peers. Expertise is not confined to the cross-benches, but can be found in all parts of the House. Nor is it a chamber of ex-politicians. By the document’s own figures, almost two-thirds of peers are not drawn from backgrounds in representational politics or working for the parties (‘ex-politicians’). Cross-benchers who aren’t affiliated with a political party, we are told, ‘only account for 23% of peers’. Only? Only? How many other chambers have almost a quarter of their membership not affiliated with a political party? There are factual inaccuracies. Hereditary peerages do not in all cases ‘pass to the first born son’, as doubtless the Countess of Mar (and the now retired Lady Saltoun) could explain. There is no recognition of the leadership roles assumed by women peers. We are told that various claims are made about the House (as on representativeness), but without any source being provided for these claims.
The finding most seized upon by the media, though, is that in the last session £100,000 was claimed in attendance allowances by peers who did not take part in any divisions. This has been reported uncritically, including by broadsheets such as The Daily Telegraph, with no attempt to explain or engage with the finding. It is taken as inherently problematic. Why is this taken in isolation of peers’ contributions to debates, to question time, and to committees? It may be relevant if a peer makes no contribution at all, but isolating voting behaviour tells us very little. The House will be sitting for two weeks in September. There will be question times and debates throughout. It is possible that there may not be a single vote.
There is a grudging acknowledgement that ‘the Upper Chamber, at its best, performs a crucial role in scrutinising and revising government legislation and providing a check on prime ministerial power’. It actually does more than this. It is important that the distinctive contribution made by the House, having a beneficial effect that is difficult to quantify in economic terms (what price preventing enactments that could have disastrous consequences?) but which cannot be achieved by the alternatives variously put forward, is recognised. There is a case for reform to address issues of size and political balance, but one needs to put the benefits alongside the problems. There is a powerful case to be made for the House of Lords and it is important that it is heard.