THE BLOG

The House of Lords Should Remain Unelected

16/08/2015 22:16 BST | Updated 16/08/2016 10:59 BST

With the latest revelations about 62 members of the House of Lords - none of whom have participated in a single vote in the last five years - claiming £360,000 in attendance fees and expenses, it is very easy to jump to the conclusion that the entire second chamber is full of money-grabbing lovers of the high life.

Indeed, this latest raft of bad publicity for the upper house comes only weeks after the former Deputy Speaker of the Lords, Lord Sewel, was forced to resign after he was filmed snorting cocaine with prostitutes whilst at the same time denigrating a number of other senior British politicians.

The obvious conclusion is that the House of Lords needs reform. Not only does the expenses system need to be overhauled to ensure that payments to members are linked to how much time they spend on the floor of the House, but proper thought needs to be given to reducing the overall number of Lords.

The Guardian reported in February that the number of Lords eligible to sit stands at an astounding 850; making Britain the only country in the world with a bicameral legislature in which the upper house is bigger than the lower one. Of course, it is rare that more than 650 members will attend the Lords, and on a daily basis it is far fewer than that; but nonetheless the situation is unsustainable. What's more, numbers are set to rise further as David Cameron appoints a raft of new Tory Peers so that the Lords' membership better reflects the make-up of the Commons.

One solution that has been consistently raised with regards to Lords reform is to make the second chamber a wholly or mostly elected body. On paper, this seems like a good thing to do; it would bring the UK in line with other bicameral legislatures around the world and would make the Lords' members accountable to the British public, the people that are affected by the legislation that emanates from Parliament. However, in practice an elected upper house would almost certainly be a step down from our current system.

Firstly, the House of Commons is deemed the superior legislative house because its members are elected and they therefore have legitimacy in that they are accountable to the electorate. Yet if the upper house were also elected then which would be superior? Proposed legislation would get stuck between the two houses as neither could claim a monopoly on legitimacy; just look across the pond at the regular stalemates between the US House of Representatives and the Senate.

Additionally, politicians are unpopular in this country precisely because nearly all MPs are members of political parties who often dictate what they can and can't say and do. Consequently, ambitious MPs will often side-line constituency matters - the issues on which they were elected to deal with - to toe the party line and rise up through ministerial and party ranks.

Imagine if we had more party-affiliated, elected politicians who, rather than effectively scrutinising legislation, either supported or opposed the Government line because their party whips told them to. After all, we should be making efforts to lessen the impact of partisan party politics, not make the problem worse.

Also, turnout at elections is already low; what would happen if the electorate were to be confronted with yet more politicians to vote for? A second chamber elected on a poor turnout would hardly be legitimate. It might be more legitimate on paper than an unelected body, but I would argue that a new membership of party politicians would be far less valuable than the current membership.

Finally, the majority of members of the House of Lords have been appointed usually because they have had successful careers in valuable sectors of the British economy, or because they have made a valuable contribution to public life. In other words, they have crucial experience that is often lacking in politicians today, who are - let's face it - getting younger and younger. In this respect, the House of Lords generally does a very effective job in scrutinising legislation and recommending changes that are often accepted by the Commons.

Certainly, the upper house needs reform in a number of areas, not least to ensure that numbers do not balloon to ridiculous proportions.The answer though certainly does not lie in stripping away all that is good about the House of Lords and replacing it with a room full of elected, whippable Lords, who will do what their party tells them.