THE BLOG
25/06/2012 12:13 BST | Updated 25/08/2012 06:12 BST

A Rejoinder to David Lipsey: For the Sake of Progression, Legitimacy and Democracy - The House of Lords Must Be Reformed

Robin Cook once commented that reforming the House of Lords was like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot - "(it) never arrives and some are rather doubtful whether it even exists".

Robin Cook once commented that reforming the House of Lords was like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot - "(it) never arrives and some are rather doubtful whether it even exists". Certainly this seemed the case under New Labour, who removed all but 92 hereditary peers and failed to change little else; despite the numerous papers and committees they orchestrated to explore reforms. Today, it would seem the most recent proposals by the Coalition are beginning to look just as unlikely to arrive as Godot, with the chief whip, Patrick McLoughlin warning that the government is facing a potentially heavy defeat on The House of Lords Reform Bill.

Much scaremongering against reforms has come from the hysterically pro-patronage Labour peer and economist, David Lipsey.

Previously he has defended the appointment process on the basis that it would not be possible to elect a better Lord than himself. But his latest line of attack is his prediction that progression and modernization will cost £484 million.

He was joined by the Tory MP, Jesse Norman who argued 'at a time of national austerity, it is hard to imagine how anyone could justify spending nearly £500 million of taxpayers' money on what would be an unprecedented constitutional upheaval'.

Lipsey and Norman however, seem to misunderstand that modernization and progression requires expenditure.

For example, it would be expensive to implement a democratic system in North Korea, but this does not therefore mean North Koreans should not have democratic reforms should the opportunity present itself.

Thus, why should the cost of implementing reforms result in an autocratic system being maintained in Britain?

Political power is only legitimate and therefore justifiable when it reflects people's beliefs. According to the most recent YouGov poll on the House of Lords - 69% of voters backed a reformed Chamber, and only 5% of the electorate supported the status quo. Consequently, it is clear the electorate does not regard patronage as an acceptable basis for a representative institution in a democracy today - ergo the House of Lords is not legitimate.

As all three main parties supported reform in their 2010 manifestos, it is therefore troubling that Lipsey, an unelected figure, has the chutzpah to stop this country's democratic progression.

Indeed, the Tories championed an elected chamber that maintained a minority of appointed members in their manifesto, and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats supported a wholly elected second chamber. As the current proposals would see a chamber of 300 (reduced from 800) that is 80% elected, and 20 % selected - it is difficult to see how the government can evade such a commitment, regardless of the financial cost.

Lipsey also fails to understand that Britain is severely lagging behind with our second chamber. Of the 182 democracies in the world, 67 of these have a bicameral system, and of these, 48 have a largely or wholly elected second chamber. Those who have no elected members in their upper house, tend to be less developed states.

In 1918, Lord Bryce argued the second chamber must be a reservoir of "specialist knowledge and ripened wisdom", and it is this distinctive feature of the House of Lords that Lipsey has previously used as a defense against reforms.

In reality however, Hugh Bochel and Dr. Andrew Defty found 'expertise' severely lacking amongst peers regarding the largest area of public expenditure: Welfare. They discovered through a series of interviews that many peers referred to dated models of welfare provisions (hardly surprising when one considers the average age in the House is 69!) and many were unfamiliar and less comfortable with specific policy questions posed to them compared with MPs.

Often they tended to rely on personal beliefs, and in many cases slipped into anecdotal style answers when asked on welfare issues such as health (again given the average age, it is hardly surprising that they could discuss the NHS in a personal capacity).

Peers tended to be far more influenced by lobbying than MPs, and over half surveyed by Bochel and Defty admitted they found lobbying 'useful' as a source of information.

Previously the distraction of constituents has been used as a reason to maintain patronage by Lipsey. Yet through constituents, MPs sustain the knowledge required to understand the complexities of public policy, and many former MPs who now sit in the Lords admitted that their lack of contact with constituents', impacts on their overall knowledge and understanding of policy.

As the current proposals for reform would lead to the development of some form of 'constituency' ties, whether a different nature to that of MPs or not - this may therefore result in more knowledgeable peers, who are thus better equipped for the job.

Despite Lipsey's claims, there is no reason that having a partially elected house, as currently proposed would lack expertise.

This was evident during the second reading of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill in the Commons, where the present MPs included: two hospital registrars, one of whom was a member of the BMA Medical Ethics Committee; a former Dean of a school of biological sciences; a university lecturer with a PhD in biochemistry and philosophy; a former reader in organic chemistry; the former Dean of Bupa; a psychiatric nurse; a social worker; and two former health ministers - Hardly a gathering of 'career politicians'.

Last week The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Independent exposed several prominent peers who debate and vote infrequently in the House, despite claiming vast expenses. Currently, information regarding attendance is not available for public viewing. However, fortunately, under the coalition's Bill - those who fail to attend at least fifty per cent of sitting days may be forced to stand for re-election.

Could anyone seriously argue against gifting the public the aptitude to check on their lawmakers in a democracy?

In 2009, Lipsey argued 'just as you would not fancy a talented athlete if he no longer trained, you would not fancy a talented head for an inquiry if his wits were not kept in trim by the daily experience of lords life'. However, in reality, the predominance of elderly men who are increasingly out of touch, combined with their poor attendance, and reliance on lobbyists; it would seem that it is our second chamber that is the untrained athlete (and an expensive one at that). This coalesced with the overall desire for reform - consequently means that the House of Lords should cease existing as an unelected chamber. We must stop being bullied by a staunchly anti-democratic, and egotistical individual, and instead hold our politicians to account for their manifesto promises; the time has come to cease waiting for Godot.