Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

House of Lords, change or dissolution?

A rambling description and analysis about events last fall when the majority in Lords threatened a basic piece of government legislation. It is, though, full of good little insights into the institution.

Who needs the House of Lords? Meet the peers rattling the Commons
It is late October in the House of Lords and the chamber is full. The peers squeeze on to benches, or crowd four deep around the throne. The government has threatened to suspend the Lords, which is about to debate the abolition of tax credits. It is not the first time this House, which was last suspended by Oliver Cromwell, has faced an existential threat…

No one has to attend the Lords, and no one is paid a salary for doing so (for those who turn up, there is an allowance of £300 a day, expenses not included)…

This debate, then, is about whether the Lords have the authority to overrule the Commons. The answer is: they do…

The Lords' speaker on her wool sack
The debate is grandiose and self-consciously polite, as if the peers cannot forget that every word will be transcribed into Hansard, where it will remain after everyone is dead. There is none of the shrieking anti-intellectualism of the House of Commons: 500 men auditioning to lead News At Ten…

Molly Meacher, a crossbencher [independent], frets that she is “acutely conscious of the threats made by the government to destroy this House”. She does not enjoy this kind of pressure, she says…

[T]he day after the debate, the government also commissions a review into the Lords’ powers: Lord Strathclyde, a former Tory leader of the House, is asked to write it. The Tories do not want a nest of opposition, where Labour can combine with Liberal Democrats and crossbenchers to thwart them…

The House of Lords is the second largest legislature in the world after the National People’s Congress in China. Never elected, and reformed only piecemeal, it is also the oddest. The ladies toilets are green marble, and contain a red leather chaise longue. The doorkeepers wear white tie, like pianists. Nigel Lawson does not wear a coat, but an opera cloak. Black Rod, who is in charge of security, wears an ornamental ruffle at his throat.

The Lords has 859 members, and a chamber built to seat 240. The average age is 69. Death used to be the only exit (now you can retire)… There is a library, a dining room, a tea room, a bar, committee rooms and offices (six peers can share just one office). These offices house the 92 hereditary peers who survived the Blairite cull in 1999, as well as scientists, historians, former civil servants, lawyers, surgeons, party hacks and donors, a dentist, a cheese maker, former MPs, diplomats, a children’s TV presenter and 26 bishops…

I visit the Labour leader, Angela Smith, in her gloomy office. She is friendly and intensely normal; she grew up on a council estate in Essex. She complains about the red robes which – and I am told many times, by peers, to emphasise this – they wear only at the state opening of parliament. “We wouldn’t photograph you in your Halloween costume and then pretend you wear it every day,”…

Labour’s official policy is for an elected House of Lords, but in the meantime they will work with what there is. In the three months I lurk here, they will drag concessions from the government over the cities and local government devolution bill, the Bank of England bill, the psychoactive substances bill, the charities bill, the enterprise bill, the criminal courts charges regulations and the welfare reform and work bill…

The Lords is a place of paradox. It is, for instance, kinder to women than the Commons is. “There is no sense of boys throwing bread rolls and nanny will stop them. Women are heard here,” Hollis [Labour member] says. It is more inclusive…

It is not an ideal place for a woman with young children who does not live in London, or for women who aren’t financially secure. Even so, both Labour and Conservative leaders are female, and there has never been a male Lord Speaker…

[Lord] Strathclyde says a fight between the Commons and the Lords has been brewing since 1999…

In 1999, they were promised a two-stage reform: remove the hereditary peers, then get a fully democratic house. “We got the first but not the second; 17 years later, we are still waiting.” Strathclyde gives a slightly bitter laugh…

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