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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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The House of Lords deserves some respect

4 min read

When discussing the future of the House of Lords, it is imperative that we begin by examining the Upper Chamber’s role, function, and its relationship with the House of Commons.

The time has come for the House of Lords to more clearly delineate its role to ensure it effectively serves its primary purpose of legislative scrutiny. Central to this is, of course, the interaction between the two Houses.

The House of Lords accepts that it is a revising Chamber, enhancing and improving legislation passed by the House of Commons, although a minority of legislation is originated in the Upper House. This relationship is fundamental: the Commons rightly holds legislative supremacy given its democratic mandate, while the Lords focuses on ensuring laws are well-crafted and implementable – not usually by blocking legislation.

However, incidents such as the handling of the recent Safety of Rwanda Act demonstrate a concerning trend where the government has cursorily overlooked and rejected all the Lords’ amendments. This disregard not only undermines the Lords’ role, but also impacts on the overall effectiveness of Parliament and the quality of our legislation. 

Focus more on strengthening its relationship with the Commons and less on electoral considerations

Amendments put forward by the Lords are often thoughtful and intended to support rather than hinder the government. But it is now clear that the functions of our House need to be clearly defined and understood, and respected by all.

With the Commons increasingly curtailing its own debating time for some critical legislation, the Lords regularly steps in to fill the gap, conducting detailed and informed debates that, in my opinion, in quality and thoroughness, surpass those in the Lower Chamber.

The Lords’ strength also lies in its diverse membership, which draws on a broad spectrum of professional and other wide experience to examine and improve legislation. Approximately 20 per cent of the Lords are crossbenchers, independent experts in their field with invaluable insights. This depth ensures our laws achieve their intended objectives and can avoid unforeseen consequences.

This is one of the reasons I worry that moving to an elected House could risk losing these experts. Also, by giving the Lords an elected mandate, it would give rise to an increasingly assertive House that could challenge the supremacy of the House of Commons, leading to legislative gridlock and potentially diminishing the Chamber’s important revising capacity.

I know there have been concerns recently about holding the Foreign Secretary to account. Not only has the Lords acted by introducing monthly questions to him, but the Lords boasts a greater reservoir of foreign policy experience than the Commons. Yet, the current system does not adequately leverage this expertise in decision-making processes. So, we need to find a better form of accountability and relationship with the Commons for senior ministers who sit in the Lords.

Despite clear indications that reform is necessary, efforts to reshape the Lords from within – such as proposals to reduce its size, limit prime ministerial appointments, enhance the role of independent experts, and eliminate by-elections for hereditary peers – have largely been ignored by both the government and the opposition. Nonetheless, many peers desire reform.

For the House of Lords to maintain its relevance and effectiveness, future discussions should focus more on strengthening its revising role and relationship with the Commons, and less on electoral considerations. We should also re-examine how legislation is carried out. 

Crucially, a better working relationship with the House of Commons must be the priority. This will become even more important after the general election with an unusually ‘very fresh’ Lower House. The Lords need to restate from day one after the election its position, and fight for its voice to be heard and respected.

A thoughtful approach to reform could help solidify the House of Lords’ role as an indispensable component of effective governance in our country. 

Lord Kirkhope, Conservative peer

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