Lords reform: 1911 all over again….

Every so often, the issue of reforming the Lords comes to the fore.  In recent weeks, we have witnessed calls for reform or even abolition.  When I was interviewed for the BBC Week in Parliament programme last week, I made the point that the calls were similar to those that were heard in 1910 and 1911, following the rejection by the Lords in 1909 of Lloyd George’s budget.

Then, as now, the debate did not derive from first principles, based on what role one ascribed to Parliament and the place to be taken by the second chamber.  The debate last century was not one either of principle or popular demand.  The general public, as Roy Jenkins observed in Mr Balfour’s Poodle, ‘remained as unexcited as it had been throughout the long struggle’.   The issue that largely shaped one’s stance on Lords reform was that of Irish home rule.  That was the burning issue of the day.  The Lords was seen as an impediment to achieving home rule.  If one was in favour of home rule, the Lords was an undemocratic barrier to necessary reform.  If one opposed home rule, the Lords was an essential constitutional bulwark.  It was the issue of home rule that led to the collapse of the constitutional conference convened in 1910 and dominated debate on the Parliament Bill.  The avowed aim of the Bill, declared Lord Deerhurst, was ‘the passing of a measure to give Home Rule to Ireland’.

Fast forward to today and we see the debate over Lords reform shaped largely by the stance taken on Brexit.  If one is in favour of Brexit, one objects to the role played by the Lords in passing particular amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.  If one opposes Brexit, the House is fulfilling its essential role of scrutinising legislation.  The stance of the House has created mixed feelings for some politicians who dislike an unelected second chamber, but support its stance on the Bill.  There is again no discussion of reform derived from first principles, nor any great obvious popular surge for reform.  Those demanding change draw attention to the fact that over 160,000 people have signed a petition calling for abolition of the Lords.  For some reason, they do not emphasise the petition signed by over 4.4 million that called for a threshold to be applied to the EU referendum.

The calls for reform, as has tended to be the case over the years, focus on form and not function.  People advance their schemes for reform – a House of x number, elected by y method.   What someone thinks is an original idea is often one advanced already by a good many others.  I get frustrated by the number of times I get proposals for a House chosen indirectly by professional bodies, the proponents believing their idea to be original.  The fact that they believe it be original reflects the fact that they have not bothered to do any serious research.

This is one of the most annoying aspects of calls for reform.  They derive from no informed study of function or indeed of value.  I have previously drawn attention in a post to the problems of valuing the work of the Lords.  Critics often look no further than the cost of administration, making no attempt to assess the value of the work of the House.  They often focus on the chamber: how many are attending and are they clearly alert; how many speak?  As with the Commons, this ignores what is going on in committee and offices.  One might have cause to worry if members of both Houses spent most of their time in the chamber.  Both chambers are increasingly specialised, working through committees, and the issue of value also applies here.  How does one ascribe value to constructive dialogue between committees and ministers that results in changes to public policy?

In sh0rt, debate on reform needs to be better informed.  What we have witnessed has been debate that is largely superficial and, one might add, premature.  There is as yet no conflict between the Commons and the Lords.  The Lords have passed  amendments which the Commons have yet to consider.  It is only if the Commons reject some, and the Lords seek to insist, that there is a problem.  MPs are not expected to reject the nearly 200 amendments brought forward by government to meet points raised by committees or individual peers, which it is accepted have strengthened the Bill and helped avoid pitfalls or uncertainties consequent to the UK’s exit from the EU.

And if I hear one more politician misstate the Salisbury convention…

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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11 Responses to Lords reform: 1911 all over again….

  1. James Hand says:

    “In short, debate on reform needs to be better informed. What we have witnessed has been debate that is largely superficial and, one might add, premature.” As with the complaints about “packing the lords” as a retaliation for the defeats. However, a reset mechanism would undermine accusations of packing, unrepresentativeness/antidemocratic arguments, and retain much of what is good about the House and its existing functions.

  2. Croft says:

    “If one is in favour of Brexit, one objects to the role played by the Lords in passing particular amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. If one opposes Brexit, the House is fulfilling its essential role of scrutinising legislation.”

    I realise you are saying this to make an argument but I think peoples views can fall between those two positions. That you can agree with the Lords putting down amendments designed to fix technical aspects of a bill to make it function better or to forstall an issue with a bill. Or you can agree with the Lords putting down amendments (that you may disagree with) but the intent of the amendment is in bona fides. Last are amendments which are wrecking to the purpose of the bill. Its always seemed to me that (regardless of the issue) that’s not the role of the Lords.

    • Croft says:

      I should probably add I think the Lords does have different levels of freedom. The Lords must tread far more lightly on bills derived from a manifesto commitment or endorsed by a referendum than when neither is the case. I have no issue with the Lords in extremis (and sparingly) defeating general bills.

      It may be that while reform should be based on general principles the reality is that reform is only going to get government time if it creates enough anger/annoyance for the political will to be there. In such circumstances thats probably not going to be well thought out reform but an immediate fix.

  3. maude elwes says:

    Reading through this post, LN, a few times now, strikes me as a poking device. It sounds to me that you, like so many others, are refusing to accept the overwhelming change in the core spirit of the ‘British’ voting public. And when I write core, that is exactly what I mean. The Lords have dared, along with their friends in the Commons, to open Pandora’s box.

    The Lords are now the very remotest form of voters preference and expectation. They have become a misfired trick shot, not worth the ticket bought for a seat to watch.

    And, along with the Southern Baptist show, presented without a breather Saturday gone, there is nothing left but to close it down and move this circus on. It in no way represents the promised return to British values we are offered to swallow, as a sideline.

    • Lord Norton says:

      maude elwes: On a good many issues, the Lords are closer to public opinion than the Commons. As I have argued, views on the Lords are shaped not from first principles, but from the stance of those who take a particular position on an issue. If the Lords takes a similar stance, it is a wonderful, well-informed House. If it takes a different stance, it is an affront to democracy.

  4. maude elwes says:

    @ LN.

    Even if you decide my last post is unworthy of your blog, please will you be kind enough to clarify for me. As, I was not being facetious when I wrote, I am confused on the matter.

  5. maude elwes says:

    Perhaps I did not make myself understood with my previous post that has not passed the moderator, as I was trying to discuss or pursue the meaning of the difference between Democracy and Republicanism. And, whether having the system we do somehow creates a dichotomy in both chambers, who presently appear not to fully comprehend what our system is based on.

    This maybe explains what I’m getting at.


    Have the Lords lost the gist on what democracy means? Which could be muddying the waters in respect of people like me.

  6. Croft says:

    OT: Saw a snip of a debate where I think Lady Noakes commented on the fact that the Lords EU committees haven’t changed viz Brexit. Can’t say I’d thought about it but having done so they house probably should as they have largely lost their intended purpose. Shoulnd’t the house be forward planning this.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: The House is already alert to this. The Liaison Committee is undertaking a major review of committee structure and provision, not least in the light of the potential demise of the EU Committee and sub-committees, thus freeing up substantial resources. I gave evidence to the committee last month.

      • Croft says:


        Erk! No vid of the hearing and the sound volume jumps about (unless someone moved the mic!)

        “not least in the light of the potential demise of the EU Committee and sub-committees”

        Don’t see how it can continue. That very many members seem to think it can (judging from speeches in the chamber at least) doesn’t bode very well.

        The LC doesn’t seem likely to report back in a very prompt manner looking at the details I can find. Even then it looks a very general remit which might lose the detail of the specific.

      • Croft says:

        Just thinking on your post legislative scrutiny point in your evidence. At a remove one flaw in the legislative system always seemed to me the ‘bill team’. Success for the bill team is getting its bill to statute. There is no real comeback if its a badly crafted bill; the bill team has long moved on before that is known.

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