House of Lords: Time Not for Change but for Total Abolition

A week is said

to be a long time in politics. Yet five thousand weeks, and countless debates, white papers, Royal commissions and public consultations, have not enabled British parliamentarians to carry out much needed reforms to its upper chamber. The problem was highlighted in 1911 by the Liberal Government of Lloyd George, which passed a Parliament Act which said ‘it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis.’ The same pledge was made by the Labour party when it came to power in 1997 on the manifesto promise that it would reform the House of Lords by ending hereditary peerages and creating a democratically elected upper chamber. When it came to power the government led by Tony Blair reneged on this promise and decided that life peerages should be offered to people chosen by the government rather than elected by the people. This scheme was wide open to corruption, since people who contributed to party funds could buy a seat in the House of Lords, thereby getting a title and membership of one of London’s most exclusive clubs, which was heavily subsided from the national exchequer. Again, in the 2010 general election, all three parties promised to take action to bring about Lords reform, the Coalition government promising ‘to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.’ These changes have still not been made, making the House of Lords what the Guardian newspaper has described as ‘the laughing stock of the western world.’

This is a tragedy, since the upper chamber had a propitious start in 1275 when Edward I, in desperate need of cash, called a meeting of both the barons and the representatives of the common people. The convention, which was called a Parliament from the French word parler. agreed to meet his need by raising taxes levied largely on their property holdings. Years later Henry VIII gave the two groups permission to hold regular meetings in the royal Palace of Westminster. This led to the establishment of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, which was created in what was originally St Stephen’s Chapel. Now there seems little doubt that the House of Lords has passed its sell-by-date. It’s an expensive anachronism which no longer serves a useful purpose. Its original raison d’etre was to supervise and amend the legislation carried out in the commons. That function has long since been superseded. In 1911 a Parliament Act was passed which removed the power of the Lords to veto money bills, a term which might be stretched to include most legislation. As the Guardian newspaper concluded earlier this month, ‘the upper house provides no reliable protection against mad, bad or dangerous laws’. As it stands today the ‘other place’ is a liability. Its members are now divided along party lines. They’re chosen by the party bosses and responsive to the party whip. This introduces the risk of cronyism and, worst still, the threat that life peerages will be sold for party donations or phoney ‘loans’. The solution is simple. The upper house must be abolished. There’s nothing sacred about the system of bi-cameral government. Many legislatures, such as the parliaments of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Israel and New Zealand are unicameral. Likewise the Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly. According to the latest official estimates, the members expenses and general costs of running the House of Lords is well over £80 billion a year. In a recession this money could be far better spent in other ways. No institution has a divine right to exist when it ceases to serve a useful purpose. The House of Lords should be abolished without delay and turned into a five-star heritage hotel. The necessary act of dissolution has already been written. ‘The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, finding by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England to be continued, have thought fit to ordain and enact ….that from henceforth the House of Lords in Parliament shall be ….wholly abolished’. It beggars belief, but that edict was in fact was written on the 19th March 1649.


Print This Post