Select committee agrees consensus on series of incremental changes to upper chamber.
In a report released on Thursday 17 October 2013, the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee proposes a set of small scale reforms to the House of Lords. Committee Chair Graham Allen MP said "This does not preclude further debate on the big reforms of the second chamber but while we wait we have discovered that there is a clear consensus on the need for some changes now.”
The reforms proposed by the Committee include:
- Legislation, now, to allow the expulsion of peers who have been convicted of a serious offence. Peers currently have a “seat for life” once appointed and cannot be forced to retire or removed from the House of Lords. This has become an issue in the context of the commission of criminal offences. Members of the House of Commons who receive custodial sentences of more than 12 months are disqualified under the Representation of the People Act 1981. No such provision exists in relation the House of Lords. Numerous witnesses argued that there should be no difference between the two Houses in this respect.
- A stronger voluntary retirement scheme. There have been calls for a long-term moratorium on new peers and the introduction of a compulsory retirement age, as part of attempts to reduce the size of the House of Lords. However the Committee concludes that a moratorium would be ineffective and would starve the House of Lords of valuable expertise. It also views a compulsory retirement age as arbitrary and discriminatory. Instead, the Committee urges that a fresh effort be made to strengthen the existing voluntary retirement scheme and make it more attractive.
- Not replacing hereditary peers in the House of Lords: the Committee heard broad-based and significant support for this idea. It could be brought about by ending the by-election system which perpetuates the status quo. This would also serve to reduce the reputational risk to the House which results from the existence and use of the current by-election system. This would result in only a gradual reduction in numbers but taking this action would not preclude further, wholesale reform taking place in the future.
- Removing persistent, unauthorised non-attendees: Members of the House of Lords should be, and should be seen to be, actively engaging in the work of the House, and where this does not occur, action must be taken. One idea is that peers who do not attend during a session should cease to be members of the House at the end of the session, with the exception of those with an authorised leave of absence for legitimate reasons.
Wider reforms of the House of Lords are required in a second stage and the Committee says that measures which should be considered and fleshed out first include:
- The introduction of fixed-term appointments for peers: fixed-term appointments for the Lords have a long track record of support, but, to be truly successful, would need to be accompanied by other reforms.
- The creation of a statutory Appointments Commission: witnesses praised the current Appointments Commission for its work in transforming the Cross-benches; there was strong support among the Committee’s witnesses for placing the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis to protect its independence.
Graham Allen MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “As we all know, reform of the House of Lords is a large and thorny issue on which it has proved very difficult to get political consensus. This inquiry focused on the incremental changes that could possibly be achieved outside the wider reforms that are doubtless required. Creating the power to remove Peers who have actually broken the law of the land—and to remove persistent non-attendees—will enjoy widespread support and would indicate that the unelected chamber was not opposed to sensible reform.
“Establishing a consensus about the principles that should determine the relative numerical strengths of the different party groups in the House of Lords, and for codifying such principles, is probably the most contentious of all the issues we considered in this inquiry, but it is also the most crucial to any further progress. We call upon the Government and political parties in the Lords to set out their positions on this matter and to engage in dialogue that will establish a consensus before the next General Election, so that both Houses can act upon an agreed reform.”
Image: Parliamentary copyright