When the Labour Party came to power in 1997, one of its key manifesto pledges was the reform of the House of Lords.  A decade later little progress has been made in this respect.  However, reform of the House of Lords was again highlighted in this year's Queen's Speech, following a trend that has been operating for some time. 

The current face of the House of Lords

Currently the House of Lords is made up of a mixture of hereditary peers, appointed life peers, law lords and Bishops of the Church of England.  Its key function is the scrutiny of Bills emanating from the Commons although its powers in this respect are limited. The House holds a 'suspensive veto' over Bills, meaning it can delay them for up to twelve months where it does not agree with their drafting or aims, but it cannot reject the Bills entirely. 

This power is used rarely; most recently it was used to delay the coming into force of the Hunting Act 2004.

The reform proposals

The most recent phase in the long-running reform of the Lords began in October with the tabling of Jack Straw's draft reform proposals, which aim to secure cross-party support.  Under these plans, the Lords would become a 50 per cent elected chamber.  Membership would also be slashed to 450 members.  Life peerages would be abolished and all members would in future hold office for a fixed term of 12 years, whether they are elected or appointed to the House.  Additionally, any elections held would be by proportional representation.

The proposals are likely to require a transition period of up to 15 years, although details of timescales were not explicitly set out.  The aim would be to reduce the number of peers over this timeframe through natural attrition, as the average age of a House of Lords peer is sixty-eight.  Such a long timeframe will also give the Government time to introduce the elected section of the House and ensure a degree of continuity within the chamber.  However, there are already doubts that numbers can be reduced so drastically within this timeframe and a redundancy package is being considered.

Other reforms would see an Appointments Commission, containing nine members with three selected by the party leaders, responsible for appointing new members in line with the proposals.  The number of Church of England Bishops in the Lords is proposed to be almost halved and a duty would also be placed on the Appointments Commission to ensure the representation of other faiths, including atheists.  Finally, quotas would also be established for women and ethnic minorities in an attempt to give the second chamber a more balanced and representative composition. 

Whatever one may think of the make-up of the House of Lords, few would dispute that it has established an enormous body of experience in scrutinising government legislation.  Its less partisan membership helps it take a more constructive approach to legislative scrutiny and amendment than is often the case in the Commons.  It can also dedicate more time than can the busy MPs in the House of Commons to this less glamorous, but essential, work.  Reform, therefore, needs to be approached cautiously.

In 2003 MPs were asked to vote for their preferred option for a more permanent reform than the current transitional measure, which was set up in 1999.  Options ranged from having no elected peers to a 100 percent elected House.  None of these options was chosen and the Government has recently stated that, to prevent this from happening again, it plans to use a preferential voting system in the Commons for the first time.  MPs will be asked to rank in order their preferences for the proportion of elected peers so that eventually the House of Commons can produce a clear result.

The Joint Committee report on the relationship between the Houses of Lords and Commons

Another factor in the debate over reform of the House of Lords is the report published at the beginning of November by the all-party Joint Committee on Conventions.  The report looked at the relationship between the House of Commons and the Lords whilst 'accepting the primacy of the House of Commons'.

The Committee's report recognises that a consequence of having an unwritten constitution means that the Houses, in their dealings with one another, rely on unenforceable conventions.  It is also noted that, should the Lords acquire an electoral mandate, then its role as a revising chamber – and consequently its relationship with the Commons – would be called into question.  Any proposals for change would necessarily involve a re-examination of the various unwritten conventions between the Houses.

An example of such a convention is the Salisbury-Addison Convention, under which the House of Lords does not oppose the second reading of any Government legislation where it is put forward in response to an election manifesto promise.  In essence, this convention recognises that the views of the electorate as represented by the Members of the House of Commons may not necessarily coincide with the views of the House of Lords and that, in such cases, the Lords should support the proposals voted for by the electorate. The report recommended that this convention should be described as the 'Government Bill Convention'.

As far as the exchange of amendments between Houses is considered; this is cited as 'an integral part of the legislative process'.  The report recommends that this process should not be codified and instead that the convention of giving notice before asking either House to consider amendments be more rigorously observed.

The Government will have to balance its own reform proposals with the findings of this Joint Committee.  It was intended to publish a White Paper on the future of the Lords in November, shortly after the publication of this report from the Joint Committee.  Unfortunately this White Paper was not available at the time of print.  In any case, what is now more certain than ever is that change, in one form or another, is coming to the House of Lords. 

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