Monday, 27 June 2011

House of Lords Reform: Boothroyd v Ashdown

Updated 29th June

Hat tip to the  Lloyd Rees Live blog which highlights a speech, in the House of Lords, by Baroness Boothroyd - a former Speaker of the House of Commons.  She is scathing about the coalition plans to reform the House of Lords which Law and Lawyers looked at on 20th May when the House of Lords Reform Bill first emerged.  Her speech was excellent and may be viewed at Democracy Live.

My Lords, the draft Bill before us confirms my worst fears. Never in my
experience has an institution at the heart of the British constitution been
marked down for destruction on such spurious grounds. Never in all my years in public life has the bicameral role of our Parliament been so wantonly put at risk by such disregard of the nation’s best interests.

See the government's draft Bill together with Explanatory Notes.  An alternative Bill, introduced by Lord Steele, is before the House of Lords - see House of Lords Reform Bill.

Writing in The Times - 27th June - Lord Ashdown states that the coalition's bill is a great chance for reform.  He looks at four arguments used to oppose reform.  (1) that the public are not clamouring for it.  True, but neither does the public like the way politics is.  (2) an elected Lords would challenge the primacy of the Commons.  Why should it?  Ashdown says that there are 61 elected second chambers in the world.  In none has election of the second chamber threatened the primacy of the first. "Is Britain's constitution really so weak that it would risk collapse if its second chamber were elected, like the vast majority of others world wide?"  (3) a lot of expertise would be lost to the Lords if it were reformed.  Ashdown concedes that there is a reservoir of expertise in the Lords though he says "it is not evenly spread, unique, or, much of it. up to date" and most of it exists on the cross-benches.  "If some find simple
democracy too radical, maybe we should preserve this 20 per cent if they are independently appointed."  (4) then there is the charge that a democratic Lords would mean a more political Lords.  "As though it wasn't political already."  "There are 201 former MPs who have humped their politics the short distance from the green benches in the Commons to the red ones in the Lords."  "We are all of us political placemen or women, put there by a system of patronage, in the hands of those in power.  I thought that went out with the Stuart kings!"

Asdown goes on to point out that the Lords should have two functions.  First, to be a revising chamber and he says it does this well.  Secondly, to act as part of the system of checks and balances, to stand up to an overmighty executive, backed by an overwhelming majority in the Commons, when it tries to do foolish things (e.g. launching us into an "illegal" war).  The Lords does not perform this function well.  "We may have a bicameral system when it comes to the small thing of amending legislation.  But when it comes to the big thing - acting as a check on the executive - ours is no more than a monocameral system with a bungalow annexe."

Comment:   In a letter to The Times (29th June), Dr Meg Russell - Reader in British and Comparative Politics, University College London - challenged Mr Ashdown's facts.  Russell argues that there 38 second chambers which are wholly elected.  Many elected second chambers are in Presidential systems (e.g. USA) where there is no concept of "primacy" for the lower House.  Some second chambers have limited constitutional powers - e.g. in Japan the lower house can overrule the upper house by a two-thirds majority.  Furthermore, it was wrong to suggest that the first thing a new government does is to appoint enough new peers to create a majority of itself in the Lords.

In the period 1997 to 2006, the political balance in the Lords was altered from an in-built Conservative majority to a situation in which Labour became the largest party.  This was achieved by not only appointments but also by exclusion of most of the hereditary peers under the House of Lords Act 1999.  In the time from the 2010 general election to April 2011, some 117 new peers have been created prompting a report from, University College London, that the House is Full - (pdf).  The Guardian 20th April 2011.


  1. Well, all three main parties went into the last election with a manifesto promise to introduce a wholly or partially elected H0L. Consequently, it ill becomes Lady Boothroyd (for whom I used to have some respect) to use such ill-chosen language in her speech. Basically, a bunch of superannuated old has-beens has been parading their opinions that the HOL is fantastic, great, needs a few tweaks, but nothing that would allow the taint of democracy to intrude upon their hallowed halls. I used to favour moderate reform - partially elected, partially appointed, partially ex-officio. Now I favour abolition.

  2. Both Boothroyd and Ashdown are, in some respects, right. There is a need for an effective second-chamber otherwise the Commons (dominated by the executive) will be all we have. I think it would not be right to continue with a House which is appointed.

    At least this important debate is livening up a bit. When the coalition's bill was introduced it was met by an eerie silence with almost nobody commenting much.