Sunday, 12 June 2016

Why the House of Lords Should Be Abolished

by Ellie Williams-Brown

Every five years the British people go to the polls to elect a government, but for hundreds of years another unelected body has held significant power over them, and that body is outdated and needs to be removed. 

The House of Lords members meet in Westminster and are expected to scrutinise Bills approved by the House of Commons. While they cannot normally prevent laws from being passed, they can delay Bills and force elected politicians to reconsider their proposals. This is said do be done in the name of ‘holding the government to account’; instead it allows an unelected, undemocratic body - which happens to be the second largest chamber in the world - to shape our country’s politics, giving power to peers who are unable to be held accountable by a constituency or fear of not facing re-election, as many hold their seat for life. It lacks diversity, goes against democracy, and should be abolished.

The first, and most blatant, point against the House of Lords is that it is simply undemocratic. Currently, the members of the House of Lords consist of hereditary peers, senior members of the Church of England and those appointed by political parties. Not only is there an abuse of power in who is selected into the House of Lords, but its very existence, currently, goes against the principles of democracy. It is strange that, as a country, we lecture and fight wars in the name of democracy and yet we allow a major part of our government to go against these principles.

Elderly white men

The House of Lords is also unrepresentative and out of date, representing the social and economic elite, which mainly consists of elderly white men. With only 29 - out of 782 peers - being under 50, one in four members being women and 31 peers from ethnic minorities, there is little diversity, barely a range in opinions and a gross misrepresentation of the British population. Peers who sit in the house based on noble birth, or their membership of the Church of England, do not represent the people of Britain; the idea of democracy, as stated by Abraham Lincoln, is ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’; thus, making the House of Lords out of touch with the electorate. This traditional provenance of the House of Lords translates to an in-built Conservative majority, with even Liberal and Labour peers being somewhat conservative in their opinions. The unfair skew in favour of the conservatives allows them to slow down and revise legislation which the general British populace would want, but cannot defend - as they have little to no seats.

As peers are appointed by the Queen on advice of the prime minister, the current party in power will always have the majority in the House of Lords, as they elect the peers. This abuse of power can be seen with the Conservatives, who have the highest number of peers (226). At first, it seems understandable that the Conservatives do have the majority - as they are in power; however, you then have to factor in that in February 2016 David Cameron sent 244 people to the House of Lords, as prime minister. Another tranche will make him the most generous dispenser of peerages of our era - above even Tony Blair, who had the genuine excuse that in 1997 the Lords was heavily stacked against Labour. Why are we still allowing this breach of democracy when we know it can be misused, and can see the misuse currently happening?

The House of Lords is also favoured towards established parties and does not reflect the parties who received the most votes. In June, The Guardian reported that the Liberal Democrats were set to see an increase in their number of peers in the Lords, despite winning only 7.9% of votes in May and holding just eight seats in parliament. This is because the Liberal Democrats' ex-MPs are being returned to Parliament - despite being unwanted by voters - as it has been decided that they should be made peers; the House of Lords is the only legislature in the world where losing an election helps you gain a seat. Contrasting this overrepresentation, both Greens and UKIP - far more fresh-faced parties - are underrepresented, having one and three members each, respectively. This is abysmal when the millions of votes each party received are reviewed. Simply having this unelected chamber is bad enough, but it is also ridiculously out of step with public opinion; this will not change as, while Lords have recently been given the ability to retire, they are still eligible to sit in the Lords for the rest of their life - and with the current tax breaks no-one wants to leave.

The House of Lords - despite its name - is meant to represent experts of different industries, but currently it is more of a place where professional politicians go when they have lost elections. In the current House of Lords, 27% of peers were Members of Parliament before entering the House of Lords and a further 7% of Peers are former political staff or held senior positions in political parties. Although a small number of members of the House of Lords are industry experts there are still far more hereditary peers, which guarantees no expertise whatsoever; and, as independent Crossbench peers have to fit their time in the House of Lords around busy careers, the business of the house is often left to these peers who are former politicians or hereditary members. Thus, the House of Lords is left to professional politicians, not industrial or business experts. 

There are two main changes that could be made to the House of Lords: making it fully elected, or a mixture of elected and appointed members. If the House of Lords was to be fully elected, it would cause more problems than it solves,as, with two elected chambers, the House of Commons would no longer be supreme. As reform would make the House of Lords simply a mirror of the House of Commons, it seems illogical to try to change the House of Lords, rather than simply abolish it. 

This makes the other option - a hybrid of elected and appointed peers (perhaps in a 60%, 40% split) - seem more logical, but it too would create more problems, all whilst keeping a majority of the problems the House of Lords already has. The House of Lords would still be undemocratic, as it would be retaining mostly unelected members. It would also create a two-tier House of Lords between the elected and non-elected members, causing friction and drifting the focus away from the House of Lords main goals. The system would also cause additional confusion - within and without Parliament - as to where the power did or should lie. A reform including an election process would deter many industry experts and attract political opportunists instead, thus eliminating the current worth of the House of Lords; meaning that as reform would be useless and the House of Lords should just be abolished.

If the House of Lords' undemocratic nature and lack of diversity does not persuade you as to why it is so ineffective and, therefore, should be abolished, perhaps its monetary cost will. Whilst peers are technically unpaid, they are able to claim £300 a day tax-free, for each day they attend, plus limited travel costs. Between February 2014 to January 2015, £21 million was spent on Lords allowances and expenses, with the average Peer receiving £25,826. This showcases how the House of Lords is not just an affront to voters it is an unacceptable burden on the public purse; as the public is paying for a lack of democracy.

Despite all this, the House of Lords has yet to be abolished,mainly because of the fear of controversy or a new ‘unworkable’ government, which is stalling reform. However, if we adopt the stance that the government can override the will of the people - as most of the British population has repeatedly shown to be discontent with the current House of Lords - we excuse this misuse of power. Overall, the House of Lords is symptomatic of a society which pays lip service to democracy and meritocracy but so often falls short of achieving it in reality, and should be abolished as it continually falls foul to a misuse of power and lack of representation of current British politics and views.

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