Is the House of Commons in need of more reform than the House of Lords?

The House of Commons is the elected lower chamber of Parliament, the members of which are determined through the First Past the Post electoral system. By contrast, the House of Lords is the unelected second chamber consisting of appointed and hereditary peers. The UK’s bicameral system ensures that both houses have a prominent role in passing legislation. However, the extent to which they fulfil their functions well has become a point of contention. As a result, there has been a debate that the Commons needs more reform than the Lords, with many arguing that its representative function fails to operate effectively. However, it will be argued that the Commons has experienced sufficient reform in recent years but the archaic Lords is arguably in need of greater reform at it lacks legitimacy. 

The main criticism in favour of greater House of Lords reform over the Commons is its undemocratic nature.  Because it is unelected, many argue that it lacks the democratic legitimacy needed to be held accountable to the public.  Former Labour leader Ed Miliband described how “it fails to represent large parts of the UK’’. Consisting of 26 Bishops and an overwhelming majority of white wealthy men, the House of Lords falls short in representing the intersections of a multi-faith and multi-ethnic society. Moreover, the House of Lords Act (1999) removed all but 92 hereditary peers. It should be argued that If the Lords is committed to wholesale reform, this should not be on a piecemeal basis. At the moment, the chamber is appointed by the Prime Minister through her powers of patronage, this gives rise to the claim of cronyism. For Conservatives however, this promotes the ideal of ‘change to conserve’, the slow, gradual reform of the Lords is vital in preserving its institutional strength. Jeremy Corbyn has called for a “radical overhaul” of the Lords, to deal with the ‘democratic deficit’. An elected chamber would address the current democratic deficit, giving the Lords a full mandate to initiate and amend legislation. In comparison the House of Commons, which is democratically elected under FPTP ensures a strong link between an MP and their constituency and thus remains fully accountable to the origin of sovereignty, the people. 

On the other hand, many argue that the House of Lords has experienced sufficient reform and the argument for an elected second chamber is problematic. The House of Lords Act (1999) removed the bulk of hereditary peers. In doing so, this has provided a greater increase of talented individuals who can enrich political debate without party affiliations. An elected second chamber ensues the danger that it could become a ‘mirror image’ of the Commons. People would be likely to vote along their usual party lines, meaning that Lords would have to focus on political tactics to get elected, such as charisma, rather than expertise. Many current Lords are human rights experts or have scientific and technical expertise. The Blair and Brown government were defeated 400 times in the HOL over judicial and constitutional matters, including counter-terrorism and restrictions on the right to trial by jury. Despite these examples of the growing expertise of the chamber, these people would be less likely to stand for election or be successful. As a result, an elected Lords would merely replicate the party politics of the Commons by losing the independence of crossbenchers and strengthening the role of parties. The House of Lords Act led to a balanced composition of parties and non-affiliated Lords, with no one party having overall control. Elections would not be able to replicate this. Conservatives would suggest this balance represents the power of tradition over rationality, favoured by liberals. 

However, the fact that unelected people can decide on fundamental principles like human rights undermines Britain’s claim to be a modern liberal democracy. This strengthens the argument that the House of Lords needs greater reform, perhaps one legitimised with the implementation of a codified constitution. 

The argument that the House of Lords needs greater reform than the Commons is supported by the claim that the executive dominates it. As the selection of peers occurs via the Prime Minister, the chamber is argued to be a ‘half-way house’ of appointments. This gives rise to cronyism, where members are elected through political patronage rather than merit, undermining the liberal principle of meritocracy. In August 2014, former speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd criticised successive prime ministers for filling the second chamber with ‘lobby fodder’ in an attempt to help their policies become law. If no party has a majority, as would be likely under proportional representation, it would challenge the dominance of the executive. An elected second chamber by proportional representation would also be likely to increase the quality of electoral representation, by avoiding problems created by FPTP such as electoral deserts. Therefore, the HOL needs greater reform to lessen the influence of the executive and ensure democratic legitimacy. 

Nonetheless, an elected second chamber could also lose power to hold the executive to account because peers would be subject to the same dominance as the Commons. As Lords cannot currently be dismissed except for ‘major misconduct’ (HOL Reform Act 2014), they do not have to worry about government officials ‘withdrawing the whip’ – essentially, they do not have to toe the party line in order to keep their jobs. They can oppose government decisions. In 2015, George Osborne’s plans to reduce tax credits for low-paid workers were reversed after the House of Lords shrugged off warnings of a constitutional crisis and voted to delay the £4.4bn package of cuts. Instead, Lords can focus on protecting the rights of civilians without political interference. Moreover, proportional representation – the system most likely to be used, as suggested in Clegg’s 2012 House of Lords Reform draft bill – could lead to unpredictability, as it would be likely that no party would achieve a majority. This increase in adversarial politics in the chamber could prevent legislation ever being passed. As in the USA, gridlock could be a common occurrence, and the governing party would not be able to fulfil their manifesto commitments. 

However, there are currently restrictions on their power that could be lifted if it was elected, such as the 1949 Parliament Act’s ruling that it can only delay the passage of legislation for one year. Moreover, proportional representation in an elected HOL could be a viable solution to avoid the disenfranchisement of smaller parties. For example, in 2015, UKIP got just below 4 million votes and only one seat due to the FPTP system, this proved unrepresentative of the nation’s views. An elected HOL under PR could prevent this. 

This points to the pressing problems of the House of Commons, which many on the otherhand argue needs more reform than the Lords. Ethnic minorities make up 6% of the Commons compared to 13% of the population, suggesting that it still has a long way to go in fulfilling its representative function. Moreover, the whip system ensures that MP’s largely remain lobby fodder and toe the party line. For example, despite her margin of victory being significantly narrower than her supporters expected, Theresa May survived a vote of no-confidence (2017) triggered by members of her own party over her handling of Britain’s departure from the European Union. As the government dominates the timetable, only 20 days are allocated a year to the opposition, limiting their ability to effectively account the executive. For some Conservatives the elevated role of the executive is integral in preserving the natural authority of paternalistic leaders. Liberals would differ, when governments are elected with huge majorities they in effect become ‘elected dictatorships’, this undermines democratic accountability and renders the Commons weak. It can be argued that the House of Commons needs reform. As the main democratic branch of parliament, it falls short of representation and holding the executive to account. 

The House of Commons has experienced sufficient reform already that have considerably addressed some of its problems, significantly more in comparison to the Lords. The 2010 Coalition introduced reforms as part of the implementation of the Wright proposals. These recommendations included the election of Select Committee Chairs and the creation of the Backbench Business Committee which has acted to give room to the timetable on behalf of backbench MPs. These reforms have proved vital in increasing the power of the legislative branch. It can be argued that the Hung Parliament era has facilitated the increasing significance of the Commons. Since 2017, the Prime Minister has had a working majority, helped through a fragile confidence and supply agreement with the DUP. As a result, opposition day motions have become more successful. Keir Starmer deployed an arcane parliamentary procedure known as a “humble address” during an opposition day debate in November 2018 to force the government to release legal information into the impact of Brexit on the UK economy. This resulted in the Contempt of Parliament motion on December 4 2018, a decisive defeat for the government in failing to lay before Parliament any legal advice on the proposed EU withdrawal agreements. The growing power of backbenchers has led to May’s government facing 20 defeats in the Commons between 2017 and the end of 2018. The power of the whips has declined and both party’s face growing rebellion on their backbenches. This increasing significance of the Commons, especially over Brexit, leads to the conclusion that the House of Lords is arguably in greater need of reform as it lacks fundamental legitimacy. Whilst functioning as a successful revising chamber, In a democratic age, it is inappropriate to have an unelected chamber making decisions and amendments without any accountability to the public. Whilst the Commons can also be unrepresentative at times, this is more due to the fundamental flaws in the electoral system. However recent hung parliaments have reduced the detrimental effects of huge majorities.  The House of Lords is a place of patronage where unelected and unaccountable individuals hold a disproportionate amount of influence and power which can be used to frustrate the elected representatives of the people. This points to the underlying constitutional arrangement of the UK. A codified constitution may go some way to clarifying and modernising Britain’s undemocratic institutions but it is clear the House of Lords requires more urgent reform than the Commons. 

Jazak Barbar

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