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Reforming the Lords: Toward a truly representative House?

A ResPublica Launch Event

Prompted by the publication of the Coalition Government's Draft Bill, and the subsequent debate that has ensued in response to the proposals, ResPublica is pleased to launch "Our House: Reflections on Representation and Reform in the House of Lords", a compendium that draws together civic and institutional leaders, experts and commentators to reflect on the opportunity for a House of Lords that best embodies British society. 

With contributions from across the political spectrum and beyond, including Bishop Tim Stevens, Lord Adebowale, Lord Wei, Sir Stephen Bubb, Frank Field MP and Professor Roger Scruton, the publication explores how the House of Lords can best uphold and communicate the views and values of civil society, setting out conclusions and recommendations for an alternative proposal for its reform. The compendium has been launched on 29th February 2012, 3pm in Committee Room 2, House of Lords, Westminster, London SW1A 0PW.

The panel’s participants included a number of the contributors to ResPublica’s collection of essays:
  • Mark Harper MP, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform

  • The Rt Hon Frank Field MP DL

  • The Rt Hon The Lord Low of Dalston

  • Tim Ross, Political Correspondent, The Daily Telegraph

  • John Milbank, Chair of Trustees, The ResPublica Trust

The Challenge

Professor John Milbank opened the discussion with a crucial question: “How can we make the House of Lords more representative without losing its critical function?”. In light of this, it was observed that the Draft Reform Bill as it stands poses a significant challenge. It was acknowledged that if implemented it would not only risk compromising the representative function of the Commons, but also the democratic legitimacy of the Lords and its check on the executive.

The question of whether there is a real public appetite for Lords reform was hotly debated. While on the one hand it was argued that given the key principle that those who make the laws of the land ought to be elected, public opinion was not an issue given the archival surveys which reflect that 22% of the public said the Upper House should be abolished, 6% said it should operate under a system of appointment and 60% said that at least half should be elected. On the other hand, as Frank Field MP argued, “personal experience” was “more than a non-issue” and that the real challenge is that democracy tends to be viewed “only through the prism of elections.”

It was generally agreed that the Second Chamber should be a chamber of interests and areas and that at present it is both lacking in both of these. Further, Frank Field MP approved that this should provide a fruitful opportunity for the Big Society to be given legislative effect.

A significant issue that was raised in the discussion of the challenges presented by the Draft Reform Bill, concerned the incoherency in moving to an elected chamber without first discussing the relative balance of power between the two Houses and the purpose and role of the House of Lords itself.

Election in the House of Lords

There followed an extended discussion on the propriety and practicality of introducing an elected element into the House of Lords, in which questions over the democratic accountability in electing peers for 15 year terms from political parties, and whether this would result in the same career politicians lacking in the necessary experience and expertise required for a revising chamber, were raised. In this context concerns over the duplication of the Commons with no added value, the unpopularity with the public, increased politicisation and the loss of the chambers’ professional qualities were voiced.

It was acknowledged that historically, popular reactions to electoral reform have not been very encouraging. Moreover, that discussion had thus far been limited to one system for electing people was widely perceived as problematic.

In light of the above matters, it was agreed that a midway approach should be fashioned as an alternative which engages the public and reinvigorates the Upper House. This would ensure that legitimacy would be restored through non-partisan elections. Phillip Blond argued that “if we want a plural system we need different systems to get a democratic House”. At the same time, reform should take into account our constitutional legacy as a basis for organic representation.

The Critical Function of the House of Lords

The question of whether an elected Second Chamber would extend the interest and power of the executive was a pertinent one, in light of the little discussion which has taken place on precisely how electoral reform would improve the proper functioning of the Second Chamber. Countering this argument, it was suggested that electoral reform would strengthen the democratic authority of the Lords and Parliament over all. And that while the relationship between the two houses would indubitably change over time, the legislative framework would remain the same. Although it is questionable as to how this would work in real terms.

Lord Paul Tyler, member of the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, said the Committee has acknowledged the democratic deficit in the status quo; with “70% of those active members in the House of Lords being political nominees.” As such it is carefully thinking about the practicalities encompassed in reform. Despite concerns that 15 year election cycles by virtue of the position of candidates’ positions elsewhere, there was a sense that area based representation will reinvigorate our democracy over time.

In response to the question of how to avoid classes of peers emerging, increased competition and turf wars, it was suggested that this was the point behind ResPublica’s Hybrid House proposals and the virtue of an indirect system. Moreover, another pervasive concern was that of the cost of a majority elected House, not merely terms of increased politicization and a lack of added value, but also in terms of a representational deficit. One of the qualities of the House as it stands is in its representation of minorities who, due to a lack of concentration in any one area of the country, would find it increasingly difficult to hold representation in an elected second chamber. As Phillip Blond mentioned, Lord Wei draws our attention to his representative role on behalf of the British Chinese, who despite being the third largest minority group in the UK, are widely distributed and would therefore be challenged to find support for an elected member in the Commons.

ResPublica welcomed this opportunity to host such a topical discussion amidst the continuing debate surrounding the Coalition Government’s draft House of Lords Reform Bill.  For further information, please contact Annalisa Plachesi, Events and Partnerships Co-Ordinator, at annalisa.plachesi@

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Detailed Summary

29 February 2012
From: 15:00
To: 16:30

Committee Room 2, House of Lords, Westminster, London SW1A 0PW