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Peers Warn Against "Squeezing" Out Expertise With Lords Reform

Peers Warn Against 'Squeezing' Out Expertise With Lords Reform

Members of the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament in May 2022 (Alamy)

4 min read

Members of the House of Lords are open to reform of the second chamber, but have warned that adopting Labour’s suggestion of an elected body could “squeeze” out the benefits of independence and expertise.

Speculation over what a reformed House of Lords could look like has mounted after Labour supported a landmark report by former prime minister Gordon Brown which recommends that the “indefensible” second chamber be replaced with a new “democratically legitimate” version, dubbed the “Assembly of the Nations and Regions”.

The report isn’t explicit on what this chamber should look like, adding that its exact “composition and method of election” should be put to further consultation.

While there is warmth among peers for modernisation, there is concern that any abolition of the unelected chamber could be detrimental to ways in which it currently compliments work of MPs in the Commons. 

Lord Timothy Kirkhope of Harrogate, a former Conservative shadow minister who served in the Commons and European parliament before being awarded a peerage in David Cameron’s resignation honours, believes there is a desire for change in the Lords, but was unsure changes suggested by Brown were the way forward. 

“The vast majority of people in the House of Lords would like to see reform," he explained. 

“Although they may sound like crusty old folks, the truth is they actually are quite keen on modernisation, they realise that they have to be changed.” 

He worries an elected second chamber could lose their “real powers” over legislation because of a risk that it would simply "mimic the electoral balance in the House of Commons at any time”. While the Conservatives do still have the greatest number of peers, a large number of crossbench peers who are not affiliated to any party means the balance can shift more easily depending on the issue. 

Lord Philip Norton of Louth, a professor of UK government and Conservative peer, agreed that peers want reform, but also did not agree with Labour's proposal. 

"To abolish it would be effectively to lose the benefits of the second chamber," he told PoliticsHome

He believes the elected chamber would "squeeze out the independence element" that helps the Lords effectively scrutinise legislation, "because at the moment, we rely on the expertise and experience of our members".  

“The composition of the body has some consequences for how well it can do its job,” he explained. 

“The reason the Lords is able to do what it is able to do is in large part because of how it is composed: partly the political composition, but also the individual composition because it's a house of experience and expertise. 

“That's what adds to it because it can engage in detailed legislative scrutiny of bills coming forward without challenging the principle of those measures. So it accepts the primacy of the House of Commons works within that to fulfil tasks the Commons doesn't have the time or the political will to fulfil.” 

Labour's announcement on Monday also promised the "biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people" with recommendations on devolution and the future of the union, with a mass transfer of powers from central to local government. 

On Monday Starmer told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that discussions are pending on when "exactly" changes to the Lords would happen if Labour were in government, and would not commit to putting Lords reform in the party’s next manifesto.

"Obviously after today we're going to have a consultation about implementing the recommendations in the report,” Starmer said.

"I want the discussion about implementation to take place before the election so that we can get on at the election and put into place the recommendations.

"Exactly what happens when is part of the discussion about implementation.”

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