The Lord Speaker addresses the RSA
21 September 2023
The Lord Speaker, Lord McFall of Alcluith, delivered a speech to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London on Wednesday 20 September.
Addressing the RSA, Lord McFall said:
It is a privilege to be invited to address such an august gathering. The institutions we represent are both steeped in history. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce traces its roots to a meeting in a Covent Garden coffee house in 1754. The House of Lords is… a little older than that. Throughout its history, the RSA has been at the forefront of support for new ideas and innovations in response to the challenges of the modern age. Sadly, I cannot claim the same has always been true for the Lords, which has at times over the centuries been accused of acting as a drag-anchor impeding progress.
You might be forgiven for believing that that remains the case. Media coverage of the Lords focuses almost exclusively on controversy around appointments and individual members’ alleged misdemeanours. Commentators regularly trot out demands for abolition, as if this was a straightforward process which would resolve the shortcomings of our political system at a stroke.
However, I will argue today that there is little understanding of the work which is actually done in the Lords. I will make the case that this work is crucial to Parliament’s most fundamental task - the production of good law. And I will urge anyone considering reform to give long and careful thought to whether their schemes will safeguard and strengthen the primary role of the Upper House, as a revising chamber scrutinising and improving legislation.
Now I am not going to try to persuade you that the Lords is perfect in its current form. There is no doubt that reform is needed, but in my non-party role as Lord Speaker, it is not my place to campaign for a particular blueprint. What I can argue for is a proper understanding of how the Upper House can best help the United Kingdom overcome its many challenges.
So in this talk, I want to look at those challenges and set out how the work of the Lords helps deliver measured and effective responses that are fit for the long term.
No-one can doubt that we face a fearsome array of problems in this era of “polycrisis”: Conflict in Europe; climate change, and the delicate trade-off it requires between reducing carbon and protecting household budgets; financial instability and the cost of living; pandemic disease; mass migration; an ageing population.
We confront them at a time when trust in politics as a whole is at a low ebb, and when technological change is undermining our traditional forums for debate and dialogue. More than ever, the demands of social media and the 24-hour news cycle put pressure on elected politicians to focus on the short-term.
Within that context, I believe the House of Lords makes three distinctive contributions to the political process:
- First, we debate extensively the really important issues.
- Second, we bring genuine expertise to bear
- And third, we conduct ourselves with respect for all.
One criticism levelled at our democratic system is that the nature of party political battle encourages a focus on immediate headlines rather than long-term challenges. With a general election never more than five years away, the temptation is always to opt for the quick fix rather than the thorough repair job which may involve sacrifice on the part of the electorate, with benefits which may not be felt until decades have passed.
By contrast, House of Lords Select committees work on a cross-party basis, their members are not seeking re-election and the committees have a broader remit than their Commons counterparts. They give lengthy consideration to subjects which may not feature on the news agenda but are crucial to the long-term success of our nation. Their reports offer a template for action by governments of any political stripe and a foundation of consensus that can secure public support for difficult measures.
To pick a few examples, recent years have seen our Economic Affairs Committee conduct investigations into digital currencies; the future of social care and the transition to net zero energy sources. The Communications and Digital committee has considered the development of new regulations for the digital age; and the European Affairs Committee set out proposals for a post-Brexit relationship with the EU. Our special inquiry committees have targeted issues with far-reaching implications. Intergenerational fairness, adult social care, digital fraud, AI in weapons systems.
Based on these and many other examples, I assert that it is a myth that the big issues aren’t tackled in Parliament. The reality is: While the House of Commons chamber can often be a venue for confrontational debate, the Lords deploys its expertise and independence to highlight the most important long-term questions. Often, this work occurs in advance of these questions reaching the forefront of political debate; there is an anticipatory element to our work, which adds to its value.
The Lords also plays a crucial role in what many would see as Parliament’s most fundamental task – setting down the law of the land. Largely away from the spotlight of publicity, the second chamber works doggedly on the exacting task of scrutiny and revision to ensure that legislation works as intended.
Bills frequently arrive in the Lords in an incomplete state, with important detail yet to be filled in. The time for debate in the Commons is closely controlled by ministers, and MPs receive strict instructions from whips on how they should vote.
It is when a bill is in the Lords that the real job of line-by-line scrutiny happens. We have no guillotine on debate and no selection of amendments, so discussions continue for as long as it takes and no aspect of legislation is too obscure to be examined. There is no overall party majority in the Upper House, so ministers must proceed by persuasion rather than force of numbers. They must seek to win the support of crossbenchers and non-affiliated peers, who make up over 25% of the House and are beholden to no party whip.
Every session sees a few dozen defeats on Government legislation, which grab the headlines. But some of these defeats are subsequently overturned in the Commons; some are accepted, and some lead to compromise between the Houses. This is as it should be – while it is within the rights of the unelected House to ask ministers to think again, it is ultimately for the elected politicians to make the final decision.
What has a bigger impact are the amendments passed in the Lords with Government approval. There are typically 1,000 or more of these each year, and they often represent a minister listening to concerns and objections raised by peers and revising the Government’s plans in response. A recent study by the UCL Constitution Unit found that around 55% of all changes to legislation made during passage through Parliament stem from interventions in the Lords. However awkward this may be for ministers, many of them subsequently acknowledge that the process helps highlight practical difficulties and prevent unintended consequences.
And this is where my second point about expertise is so important.
Our members include many political appointees, and this is to be expected. The Government needs frontbenchers to get its agenda through the Upper House and the Opposition needs a shadow team to oppose it. Former Ministers and Secretaries of State can also, through the upper chamber offer the benefit of their long experience in leading Government departments.
But the red benches are also home to other eminent figures, from all corners of the UK’s public life. Scientists, doctors, diplomats, judges, captains of industry and leaders of trade unions. Campaigners for civil liberties and disability rights, environmentalists, academics and engineers. Their presence is a reflection of the fact that the life of the nation does not reside only in political parties, but is also expressed through institutions and organisations of many kinds.
The Lords offers a powerhouse of knowledge and experience that any private consultancy would charge huge sums to access. The Economic Affairs Committee boasts former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King and Treasury permanent secretary Andrew Turnbull. The European Affairs Committee is chaired by former National Security Adviser Peter Ricketts and includes David Hannay, once the UK’s permanent representative at the United Nations. Former MI5 Chief Eliza Manningham-Buller has been an active member of committees on security and technology.
Yet we also count among our number the homelessness campaigner John Bird, Play School presenter and champion of racial equality Floella Benjamin, and Hollywood film-maker Beeban Kidron, who has worked effectively on a global scale to promote the protection of children online.
The House of Lords has been described by constitutional expert Professor Philip Norton as “an arena for the discourse of civil society”. Its ability to draw on the expertise and experience of those at the pinnacle of so many spheres of human activity is a precious resource which should not be squandered.
Another aspect of the second chamber which should not be diminished is the civility of its proceedings. Voters whose only exposure to Parliament comes from TV coverage of Prime Minister’s Questions might be forgiven for thinking that Westminster is a rowdy place, characterised by point-scoring, putdowns and fractious disagreement.
They would be surprised to find that the Lords rarely hears a raised voice. The Lord Speaker is not required to silence belligerent members with cries of “Order! Order!” In fact, neither I nor the Government have the power to control the order of business or decide who speaks. The House is self-governing, and it prides itself on conducting a courteous conversation during which members are able to disagree agreeably. I believe this provides a pattern for respectful and reasoned debate in a public square increasingly dominated by tit-for-tat slanging matches.I hope this brief analysis will have at least persuaded you that the current framework of the Upper House contains merits which should not lightly be discarded.
I freely acknowledge that we would not create a second chamber this way if we were starting from scratch. But we are not starting from scratch. And history tells us that those who attempt to do so often see their plans run into the sand.
In 1968, Harold Wilson tried to legislate to guarantee a permanent majority for the Government in the Upper House. He failed. In 1998, Tony Blair had plans for a “more democratic and representative” chamber. He failed. In 2012, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition proposed 80% elected peers. Their plans also came to nothing.
They failed because their radical proposals lacked consensus and they lacked clarity on the powers of the newly-constituted House. Similar proposals are being put forward now, but the same questions will be asked. What exactly are its powers and – most crucially - how would an elected House resolve differences with the Commons, particularly if the two Houses had majorities from different parties?
As things stand, the elected House rightly enjoys primacy within Parliament. But would that hold if the Upper House was wholly or partly elected? Would elected Senators regard themselves as having equivalent democratic legitimacy to their Commons colleagues – or even more legitimacy if they were elected on a proportional system, rather than first past the post? Would they back down in a dispute with the Commons? It is easy to see the potential for gridlock of the kind often seen in Washington.
By contrast, consensual and incremental changes have succeeded. Harold Macmillan’s introduction of life peerages in 1958, the removal of most hereditaries in 1999 and the introduction of retirement in 2014 all helped usher in a more modern chamber where expert debate takes precedence over partisan feuding, and a chamber with the confidence to ask the Government to think again.
Both I and my predecessor as Lord Speaker, Norman Fowler, have pressed for further reform, not to the powers or responsibilities of the Upper House but to its size, composition and appointments procedures.
The House overwhelmingly supported the Burns Committee proposals – first put forward in 2017 - to reduce numbers of peers from the current figure of more than 800, with a “two-out one-in” system for appointments and a 15-year term of office. The same committee has also proposed a system whereby party-political places would be allocated proportional to an average of seats in the Commons and votes in recent elections, rather than being in the gift of the prime minister.
Reforms proposed in the Lords also include new powers for the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission – Holac - to vet all nominees not only for propriety but also for willingness to devote time to parliamentary work and “conspicuous merit”.
I have myself highlighted the opportunity to rebalance the system of appointments to the crossbenches, so more independent peers are nominated by Holac and fewer by Prime Ministers and departing Prime Ministers.
Incremental changes of this kind could go some way to allaying public disquiet over appointments.
And I believe that, looking more widely across the political landscape as a whole, there is a strong argument for considering systemic change.
When I chaired the Commons Treasury Select Committee in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, I learned the value of civic engagement, consensual working and a long-term perspective.
It was clear to me that politicians alone could not resolve the issues thrown up by the crash, but must engage with wider society.
I established an independent Commission on the Future of Banking; a civic initiative outside Parliament which brought together MPs of all major parties with individuals with deep experience of banking, regulation and consumer protection, along with a Benedictine monk as ethics adviser.
As a Labour MP, I reached out to Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to demonstrate cross-party collaboration on issues which were certain to challenge future governments of whatever political complexion. I asked David Davis to chair the Commission and invited Vince Cable to take part – both took up the offer. This initiative led directly to major changes in the law to make banking safer.
I believe that in an age where trust in democracy is waning and we face long-term problems of fiendish complexity, we need a similar spirit of collaboration and consensus.
Mass migration, global warming, artificial intelligence – these are all issues which will confront Governments for decades to come, regardless of their political colour.
Decisions must be made which will outlast a single parliamentary term. If we can establish consensus across politics and across society, we stand a greater chance of fostering the kind of stability which will help our nations weather the inevitable storms ahead. To take one example, it is clear that rapid progress in areas like artificial intelligence and virtual reality offer real opportunities to boost prosperity and connect people. But it is equally clear that they will impact the stability and safety of our society in ways which are hard for us to predict. As legislators, we must seek a balance between the economic gains offered by technological advances and the new risks they create for social division and crime.
In another policy area, we must find ways to boost productivity without constantly chopping and changing the environment within which businesses operate. This has been a perennial problem since the Second World War, a period which has seen a succession of industrial strategies unveiled with fanfare only to be dumped as the political mood shifts. A political system driven by five-year electoral cycles and regular reshuffling of ministers means that politicians are rewarded for novelty and the appearance of activity, while businesses depend upon a degree of consistency and stability in order to grow.
As we try to work out how to deal with complex issues such as these, it is surely time to recognise that one big obstacle we face is the nature of our political culture.
It has been said that modern societies suffer from the 3Ps - populism, post-truth and polarisation – an approach which offers easy answers, avoids difficult evidence and sets interest groups against one another. We have difficulty working productively together, something that ought to be a core task of politics and politicians.
On many big issues, we know the broad direction we need to move in. But we do not move quickly enough and we seem unable to form a consensus around steps to be taken.
I suggest the disconnect between politics and policy contributes to:
- A lack of real discourse and realistic conversations about our choices.
- A lack of trust and consensus, with political strategies looking for dividing lines rather than areas of agreement.
- And a lack of coordinated and effective action
The challenge for the political community is twofold – First, to recognise the value of engagement with civil society, drawing on talents and experience from business, academia and community organisations. Second, to create the space for politicians to step outside the daily drama of Westminster and take a truly long-term perspective.
What are the key vehicles for this task? I can see a few possibilities – but I am looking to you to add to the list during our conversation.
Some are structural – Increasing the outreach from Parliament to civil society with new forums and new technology. This could involve the establishment of Commissions to establish the boundaries of consensus on major issues of contention. It could mean co-opting onto parliamentary committees individuals with up-to-the-minute knowledge of cutting-edge sciences, industries and social movements. It could involve Citizen’s Assemblies to debate fundamental choices facing our society.
Other potential ways forward are cultural - Building mutual respect between Westminster and the devolved parliaments, as I have strived to do; creating a space within which people from widely-differing political traditions can come together to debate ideas in an atmosphere of civility and common endeavour.
I would not suggest for a second that the House of Lords offers all the solutions.
But as Lord Speaker, I hope you will forgive me for saying that I believe many of its features are ideally suited to the task of calm and reflective consideration which can make sense of the maelstrom of modern life.
It is a forum for civil society, which understands that voices from outside politics have much to contribute to our national discourse. It is an institution that believes it is important to listen to those with the most experience and expertise, not just those with the loudest voices. It understands that patience and attention to detail are as important in crafting policy as innovation and experiment.
I know perfectly well that it also has features which confuse and sometimes anger voters. That is why I am a strong advocate of reform of the size of the House and the appointment process.
But I believe that the Lords has lessons to offer to other parts of the political realm, on how we can improve the effectiveness of politics in building consensus and forging a narrative which allows us to address the real issues we face.
The democratic settlement has been dominant in much of the world since the Second World War, and it is easy to assume it will remain so. But if we look around the globe, we see troubling evidence of strains in that settlement.
In some nations, we see a politics of polarization, which seeks to capitalise on division rather than find consensus. In others, we see the tyranny of the majority, which sweeps aside the interests of minority groups.
We see voters angry over changes to their way of life which they feel have been imposed on them. We see ordinary citizens avoiding engagement in political debate for fear of being shouted down and vilified.
We see elected leaders misusing their democratic legitimacy to stifle other elements of civil society, such as the courts and media. We see a disdain for hard-won knowledge, in favour of simplistic slogans. We see the language of rancour and abuse crowd out the quieter voices of deliberation and reflection. And we see passion expended on passing controversies, while fundamental challenges to our future as a society are pushed to the margins.
It may seem odd to call an unelected body in aid when arguing a defence of our democratic settlement. But the House of Lords is part of that democratic settlement, and a part which helps preserve the virtues of reasoned debate, civil dialogue, a long-term perspective and an eye fixed firmly on the horizon.
To those who see the Upper House as an undemocratic relic which should be swept away, I say: “First seek to understand”. Understand the contribution it makes to good law-making and understand the model it offers for a different way of doing politics.
I believe it is a model which can help us find a way through the difficulties which assail us, which can bolster public confidence in the democratic system and which can offer that one precious commodity which all politicians must deliver – a thing called hope.