(This is my post as part of the Elect the Lords blogging event)
Despite all the Jack Straw bashing over the past week over his plans to keep hereditary peers (and one can infer life peers as well) in the House of Lords until they die off, there is no escaping the fact that he has a point. While MPs are mainly in favour of democratic reform, the House of Lords itself is at best ambivalent. Even the Lib Dems, who claim David Lloyd George’s legacy as their own and have always had policy for an elected second chamber, have a sizeable number of pro-appointment members in the Lords.
The problem goes beyond the normal “turkeys voting for Christmas” conundrum. For many peers this isn’t merely a case of not wanting to give up power. Entering the House of Lords was a lifetime commitment for them, one which has cost them a number of career opportunities and which they are financially dependent on. For a number of Lords, particularly the career politicians, booting them out of Parliament would hurt them severely in the wallet and in some cases even force them into penury.
There is something casually corrupting about the concept of life peerages. Many people may be unaware for instance that members of the House of Lords are permitted to work for lobbying companies – to be clear this isn’t a secret and must be declared. The intractable resistance to ending this practice is rooted in the fact that members of the Lords have few other employment opportunities given their obligations in Parliament. Where else in the world would Parliamentarians with unparalleled access to their fellow members be paid by companies to lobby on specific policies?
When I discussed the Elect the Lords Campaign a couple of years ago with a life peer, her first comment was “reform won’t go anywhere unless you deal with the pensions issue.” For many life peers, the Lords is their pension. Given however that any proposal to compensate retiring peers with fat pension funds is likely to go down like a lead balloon with the public, it isn’t surprising that Jack Straw is so tempted to go down the path of least resistance.
The question is therefore, if we don’t want to spread reform out over a 50 year period, what do we do instead? To start with, we need a structured plan. Last year, Labour politicians were openly talking about a “gradualist approach” whereby Lords reform would be spread out over several years, at each stage subject to a new vote in Parliament. Can you imagine anything worse? Under this plan, we would have had a major debate in each cycle about whether to up the elected quota or alternatively go back to appointment, with no clear end destination in place.
Far better we decide where we want to go now and give people a clear sense of what to expect. That isn’t to deny that reform may have to take place over several years, but it is to say that the people involved should be entitled to know what to expect. Kick a life peer with no independent source of income out of the Lords tomorrow, and you would be morally obliged to offer them a much larger financial package than you would if you gave them 12 years notice.
If, as appears to be the growing consensus, the second chamber were to be elected by a third at each general election, we would have such a model. A third would be replaced in the next general election, then another third and then the remainder. Just as we had when the bulk of hereditary peers were removed, an internal ballot could be held to decide who would go when.
This way, the first wave of life peers would be removed by the next general election, while the remainder would be gone by the end of the next decade, a much tighter window than Jack Straw’s vision of unelected doddery old men and women still holding on in the 2050s.
There’s no escaping the fact that a significant amount of public money will have to be spent on pensioning these people off, and this will prove unpopular. But instead of trying to evade this fact, the government should be making the alternative case. If we don’t remove life peers, they will continue to be entitled to receiving an attendance allowance, paid for by the taxpayer. We either pay for them to stay in the chamber, and weaken our democracy, or pay to remove them. It really is that simple.