The debate surrounding the purpose and continued existence of the House of Lords (HoL) has been reignited in recent weeks after the second chamber voted to amend the government’s Article 50 Bill in order to protect the rights of EU migrants. There have been seemingly hasty calls from Brexiteers to abolish the House of Lords immediately, replacing it with an elected second chamber, but the truth of the matter is that this is long overdue.
The moral argument for dismantling the House of Lords is fairly simple in that it is in the interests of democratic representation to do so. The basic concept of democracy is that those who make ours laws should be directly elected by the people, yet as we all know the members who sit in the House of Lords are not elected at all. They are there either by way of birthright – ie, inheriting the title – or via appointment as ‘life peers’. Life peers are chosen at the discretion of the government, therefore the members of the second chamber will not necessarily represent society at large.
Furthermore, a government can potentially pack the lords with life peers affiliated to the party in office at the time. This is of course wrong but it also defeats the purpose of the house, which is to act as a check and balance on government power.
However, the real argument for dismantling the House of Lords is that it is burning through taxpayer’s money without actually serving a worthwhile purpose.
Peers can claim a £300 allowance for every day they attend the House of Lords to conduct parliamentary duties, on top of travel expenses. Bearing in mind there are 804 current peers, that’s potentially £241,000 in ‘allowance’ costs to the taxpayer already, without even counting the extortionate amounts they can claim for travel expenses.
For this obscene amount of money, they do very little. The House of Lords can introduce legislation, but this ultimately has to be passed in the Commons before it can be sent for Royal Assent and brought into law. They can also propose amendments to legislation sent up from the House of Commons, but it is the latter that has the final say on whether or not any of these amendments are accepted.
If they don’t like a piece of legislation at all, they can delay it but for no more than two parliamentary sessions or one calendar year, whichever is the longer period. After this point, they are powerless to prevent a law being passed. By long standing custom (and now by law) the House of Lords cannot delay, reject or amend any proposed legislation that is in a government party’s manifesto, nor can they touch ‘money bills’ (legislation directly related to public finances or taxation).
So once we have come to the long list of things they cannot or can no longer do, we are left with the pertinent question, what exactly is the point of this chamber?
But should we abolish the House of Lords, what would we replace it with? A partially elected second chamber? Fully elected? A chamber elected via proportional representation or the alternative vote system? Or, for the sake of radical ideas, why do we not simply abolish the House of Lords and the entire concept of a second chamber along with it?
The truth is, we have not had a functional second chamber for some time. Without the ability to block legislation outright, the House of Lords cannot actually have a checking or balancing effect on the government, it is essentially just a ghost chamber being kept going for the sake of tradition or pomp and circumstance. For this reason, we know there is nothing to fear by going forward without a second chamber.
Removing the second chamber without replacement would actually improve the democratic value of our legislative system. It would prevent unelected peers from being able to influence legislation, as well as removing a bureaucratic step to make the process of legislating more efficient. Surely these can only be forces for good in a time when the judiciary is packed with left-wing activists seeking to frustrate government actions at all times.
Those who cry out against this point of view in the name of checks and balance on government power usually have an ulterior motive. It generally happens in times of Conservative government, when the left use all the instruments of state institution in an attempt to block the government and in some cases, to bring it down altogether. This can’t be allowed to happen any longer and removing the second chamber is giving them one less opportunity to do this with.
Overall, the House of Lords has been a part of the British system for many centuries, but its continued existence is testament to the sentimentality of our politicians – nothing more. There is no use keeping an outdated institution alive for the sake of tradition and just because it may have served us well once, that does not mean it’s right for the new era of politics that we’re now entering.