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The present composition of the Lords is indefensible – we should look to Europe for inspiration for reform


3 min read

I have long been lobbying Labour leaders to set up a commission to make recommendations on constitutional reform, including a replacement for the Lords, so I am pleased that a report has, finally, been released. However, I am not fully onboard with all of the proposals.

I certainly agree the present composition of the Lords is indefensible. How can we lecture others on democracy when only half of our Parliament is elected? It is almost impossible to justify hereditary Peers in the 21st century and the appointments systems that is used to select those of us unlucky enough not to be born into the position is patently open to corruption.

When a prime minister appoints the son of a former KGB agent, his own brother and a major Tory donor, all against the decision of the Lords Appointments Committee, the system is quite clearly broken. 

But the commission has failed to provide a detailed workable replacement: there is no blueprint to include the method of election, transition arrangements and other vital details.

Numbers should remain in the region of 400, double the number proposed in Gordon Brown's report

A couple of years ago Lord Purvis, Lord Kerslake and I visited Rome, Madrid, Paris and Dublin to see how their senates are elected, operate and resolve any disputes with the other chamber. It was very instructive, and I believe there is a great deal we can learn from the French system in particular.

In France the senate is elected by grand electeurs, mayors, councillors and MPs in each region and can examine and propose changes to legislation, utilising a dispute resolution procedure to reach agreement with the national assembly, when necessary. I do not believe that we should copy every detail of this model, but we can learn from it.

The commission also fails to grasp the nettle of regionalisation within England: it is not logical to entrench and develop the ad hoc system of mayors we currently have, as it is a hotchpotch with no logic. For clear evidence of mass dissatisfaction with the mayoral model, look no further than Bristol where earlier this year a majority of residents voted to abolish the directly elected mayoral position and replace it with a committee of elected councillors.

We should, instead, have a new regional structure with major executive powers devolved to each region. Only then will we have real devolution within England, thereby effectively countering the dominance of London.

There would, naturally, need to be transitional arrangements for the handover and also consideration of whether a crossbench element could continue with speaking but not voting rights. Numbers should remain in the region of 400, double the number proposed in Gordon Brown's report, as I believe this accurately reflects the current working membership, and is required in order to thoroughly scrutinise the 100 odd pieces of new legislation that are typically introduced each year. 

I acknowledge that some might argue we do not need a second chamber at all, and could manage with a unicameral system, like New Zealand or the Scandinavian countries. But I believe the recent actions of the Scottish government serve as a proximate reminder of the deficient legislation that may pass without the challenge and scrutiny that an executive provides.

The Gordon Brown report is published for consultation so I hope amendments may be made in line with the above recommendations.

I would urge the most critical of my colleagues to engage with the procedure, as it would be a pity if we peers were to be seen to be blocking much needed reforms simply to preserve our jobs.

Haste is needed as the Conservatives are likely plotting a constitutional review of their own in response.


Lord Foulkes, Labour peer. 

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