The recent list of new peers has attracted negative publicity. In the Lords, members accept that the House is too large and needs to be reduced and that the appointments process needs tightening. Members have been pressing for reform and, indeed, the only legislative change in recent years has been achieved, not by government, but by members through private members’ legislation [House of Lords Reform Act 2014, House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015]. The House itself is not an obstacle to reform that is designed to strengthen it in carrying out its essential tasks.
However, recent events have led to an open season for attacking the Lords. The House has been criticised for the cost to the taxpayers – be it the overall cost of the House or the estimated cost of each peer – and for being undemocratic. Both claims are trotted out as if self-evidently true.
Neither stands up to scrutiny. To claim that the House costs the taxpayer money is the equivalent of looking at a balance sheet and ignoring the income. I have previously written about the value added by the House. Each session, several hundred amendments are usually secured to government bills. Many are moved by government in response to amendments moved at earlier stages by backbench members. The importance is qualitative as much as quantitative. Some amendments are minor, but some make a substantial difference, benefiting charities, firms, and citizens generally. How does one monetize the value of such changes? For individuals affected by the changes, the benefit may be invaluable. Until one can start to work out the value to individuals, charities, firms, and society generally, it is nor possible to talk authoritatively about the ‘cost’ of the Lords. Rather, one needs to start addressing the value added by the House and the fact that, without a House noted for experience and expertise, that value would be lost.
As for it being undemocratic, that is not self-evidently the case at all. Democracy (demos kratia) is about how people choose to govern themselves. In the UK, government is chosen through elections to the House of Commons. There is a clear line of accountability. Government is the result of election by the people. It determines policy which, with a clear majority in the House of Commons, it can ensure is translated into law and is then answerable for that policy at the next election. The House of Lords has a persuasive, but not a coercive, capacity to affect public policy. It is not a veto player. If you elect a second chamber, which then claims an electoral mandate, it will be in a position to challenge and frustrate the will of the first chamber; it will be in a legitimate position to demand to be a veto player. Once you have an additional veto player, core accountability is lost. There is no one body standing before, and accountable to, electors for the outputs of public policy.
As my colleague, Professor Colin Tyler, who specialises in democratic theory, has written:
‘democratising one part of Parliament (the Lords) will reduce the democratic character of the whole (Parliament). And ultimately it is the democratic character of Parliament that matters, not the democratic character of its constituent parts considered in isolation from each other.’
For the sake of completeness, in relation to criticisms of peers individually, as opposed to the House collectively, the media also confuse quantity with quality, a point also developed in a previous post. A member may be active in the House, regularly turning up and speaking, but activity is not the same as achievement. Some members may not have a high visibility, but may be quietly effective, focusing their resources – and expertise – to maximum effect. One should therefore focus not so much on what members are doing, but rather on what they are achieving. That requires a somewhat more sophisticated methodology than simply totting up the number of speeches or sittings attended.
There is, in short, much more to the House of Lords, and what it does, than is apparent and certainly more than is appreciated in recent media coverage.