The House of Lords is used to getting a bad press. Rightly so, many would argue.
After all, it’s entirely unelected by the public, the average age of members is 71, less than a third of them are women, 92 are hereditary peers – and its respected independent policy experts keep being forced to sit next to more friends of whoever happens to be prime minister.
No matter how much important and dedicated work peers do in scrutinising legislation long into the night – including to 4.16am on one occasion with the Illegal Migration Bill this month – they know this isn’t a good look for British politics.
But the last fortnight may have been a new low for the Lords, with Boris Johnson’s resignations honours list giving new ammunition to those who want parliament’s upper chamber thoroughly reformed or replaced.
Anger at the former prime minister ennobling a “carousel of cronies” – including his loyal but inexperienced advisers Ross Kempsell and Charlotte Owens – and outrage over reports of his private lobbying for the addition of Nadine Dorries have added to complaints of an unaccountable Westminster elite.
Perhaps what’s most damning of all is how the earls, baronesses, marquesses and viscounts themselves feel about it.
“Peers are embarrassed by the publicity,” Labour’s Angela Smith, Baroness of Basildon and leader of the opposition in the House of Lords, tells i. “It’s a huge frustration.”
She argues that the existing peers do not deserve to be blamed for the current controversy, as many of them are experienced people trying to do their jobs of checking bills proposed by the Commons. Instead, “it should be the prime minister who has made the appointments”.
“We have control over how we conduct ourselves and how we work, but we have no control over the appointments system – and that’s what gives us the most criticism as an institution,” says Baroness Smith. “It’s rightly criticised. I’m hugely critical. It needs a major overhaul.”
She believes things have got so bad that peers now want stronger rules on who can be appointed more intently than many MPs, especially those in the Conservative Party. “This must be the first case in history where the House of Lords itself wants reform and it’s a government that’s blocking it.”
Constitutional experts agree that the need for reform is looking increasingly urgent. Hannah White, director of the Institute for Government think-tank, wrote this month: “Johnson’s final recasting of the House of Lords serves as the starkest of reminders why former prime ministers should no longer be allowed to appoint their friends, allies and benefactors to lifelong positions in the UK’s second legislative chamber.”
Complaints from House of Lords opponents
Most peers do not receive a parliamentary salary but are eligible to receive attendance allowances of £342 per day, plus travel expenses. One crossbench peer, Baron Khalid Hameed, was recently reported to have claimed £18,000 in a year despite not speaking or casting a single vote, while the former Scottish Conservatives leader Baroness Ruth Davidson claimed nearly £25,000 for a year in which she made four speeches.
There are 806 hereditary peers in the UK and 92 of them are still allowed to sit and vote in the Lords, which many say entrenches upper-class privilege in British politics. They are selected through by-elections in which only peers can vote and only hereditary peers can stand, with quotas on how many can represent each party.
Twenty-six Church of England bishops, known as the Lords Spiritual, have seats in the upper chamber – a privilege not granted to any other faith. Humanists UK argues this is an “extremely unusual and anti-democratic set-up“, putting the UK alongside just Iran as the only two countries in the world that give clerics of their national religion votes in their legislatures.
Dr Jess Garland, director of research and policy at the Electoral Reform Society, which has long lobbied for modernisation, believes the public will find the stories about “horse trading” over who should be appointed more “egregious” than ever.
“The Boris list has laid bare for the public the way that these peerages are decided behind the scenes,” she tells i. “It’s not membership of a club, although perhaps some people treat it like that – it’s actually a seat in our legislature with a say over the rules that affect people.”
She argues that seeking the perfect solution has led to paralysis. “People get caught up in, ‘It has to be this, this and this,’ and that stops them moving forward. There are lots of different ways you could create something that’s far more effective and democratically legitimate than what we have now.”
Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, pledged last year that he would abolish the “indefensible” House of Lords if he becomes prime minister. Backing proposals by former prime minister Gordon Brown, he would replace it with an elected “Assembly of the Nations and Regions”, pending consultation on “the precise composition and method” of voting.
But there has been scepticism about the likelihood of Starmer investing the time and energy to do this when there are so many other big problems to be addressed in the UK and internationally.
Labour grandees Lord Mandelson and Lord Blunkett are among those who are sceptical, with the latter blaming Brown for being “obsessed” with the idea. Lord Adonis backs an elected Lords, but considering how likely it is to be delivered, he wrote last week: “I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Those doubts may increase after reports of Labour plans to appoint dozens more of its own peers if it wins the next election.
Even those in favour of long-term reform may accept that this would be necessary in the short term, to stop Labour’s immediate legislative priorities being slowed down by Tory peers while exact plans for replacing the Lords are drawn up; until they can change the game, they have to play by the existing rules.
But it may be the first sign of the issue being gradually pushed down the agenda, with one party source telling The Times: “Abolishing the Lords is hardly mission critical to the first three years of a Labour government.”
Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, is reportedly keen on reforming the Lords in a bid to prevent Starmer abolishing it (especially when the Conservatives are by far the biggest party).
There are also widespread concerns throughout Parliament that an elected second chamber threatens the power of the Commons and would remove the expertise of crossbenchers appointed for their work outside politics.
Baroness Smith, a former MP who was given a life peerage in 2010, agrees that it’s “really important” the Lords should never overrule the Commons.
She remains in favour of the second chamber becoming wholly elected and remains confident that can be achieved. But she recognises that reaching an agreement on a new format would inevitably take time – when action to restore trust and ensure the Lords functions properly is needed immediately. She is favour of smaller interim changes to be made while more radical long-term ones are being decided.
“I don’t think we can wait until we have worked out exactly how an elected Lords works before we have really urgent reform on the appointments system,” she says.
“If you ask me, ‘Is Keir going to be focused on the House of Lords and constitutional issues on day one?’, no, he should be focused on the cost of living and helping people. Does that mean we haven’t got any space to make some serious changes? No, it doesn’t. It’s never going to be top of the list, but things could be done pretty quickly.”
She adds: “You shouldn’t have resignation honours lists that put people in the House of Lords as a farewell gesture, Tony Blair didn’t do one, Gordon Brown didn’t do one, but now we have had three Conservative prime ministers in a row use them – and we hear that Liz Truss has one, though I don’t know if we’re ever going to see it.”
“There’s more we can do to ensure that anybody who comes in here is going to take it seriously,” she says – pointing to the peerage Boris Johnson gave in 2020 to former England cricket captain Ian Botham, a Brexit supporter, as a particular example.
“There are other kinds of recognition – write him a thank you letter – but giving him a place in the legislature seems to me to be unfair abuse of the system.”
The Liberal Democrats are also in favour of wholescale changes. But their Lords leader, Baron Richard Newby, tells i: “I’m pessimistic about fundamental reform because I don’t think Labour’s heart is in it.”
He says the Johnson peerages are an example of a “ridiculous system”, but damningly they were “not in a different order of awfulness” to other recent sets of appointments, adding: “It’s mercifully free of any party donors for once.” Even if Truss does submit a resignation list after just 44 days as prime minister, Lord Newby fears this fresh “mockery” would not be the final nail in the coffin.
“It has proved remarkably difficult to do anything about the Lords,” he says. “In the preamble of the 1911 act which reduced its powers, it said we’re doing this temporarily until the Lords is reconstructed on a democratic basis. Nothing’s happened about that in 112 years.”
Lord Newby agrees with Baroness Smith that there is an appetite for change among peers, with many endorsing a 2017 report by Lords Burns which officially recommended gradually reducing the size of the Lords to around 600 by making appointments on a two-out, one-in basis. The Government failed to take action.
He says the Burns changes still wouldn’t deal “with the problem which Labour could be facing, which is that when there’s a change in administration [in the Commons], you’ve got to have a rebalancing [in the Lords] or else the government is in a very weak position”.
For now, parties that disagree with how the Lords is appointed have no choice but to accept it if they want their voice to be heard, he adds. “It’s a bit like saying to a striker in football: ‘Aren’t you fed up with the offside rule?’ Until we change the rules, you either play by them or you don’t play the game.”
This situation was exemplified last week by an internal by-election to select which hereditary peer should represent the Lib Dems after a predecessor retired. (It was won by Earl Russell, the great-great-grandson of the last Whig prime minister, beating Earl Lloyd-George, the great grandson of the last Liberal PM.)
Some peers may still hope for more minor reforms that keep the Lords as an appointed chamber, however. The Lord Speaker, former Labour MP John McFall, wants to avoid “gridlock and competition between two wholly elected houses” and retain “independent expertise“.
He said in a speech in December: “I wouldn’t like to predict the outcome of a referendum on the Lords. But I remember that, in 2013, the government of Ireland sought to abolish the upper house of their parliament – which is not directly elected – and put their proposal to a public vote. The people of Ireland voted to keep their upper chamber – the result was 52 per cent to 48 per cent.”