Change is generally unwelcome in the House of Lords, and when it does happen, it moves slower than cold treacle.
I welcome the Burns Report, on how to reduce the size of the second chamber, from about 850 to 600. I say ‘about’ as it’s hard to pin down the exact figure as peers retire or die at random and the government keeps packing more in regardless.
But the scope of the report was very narrow, only aiming to find a formula for making the House smaller. It had to ignore the challenge of creating a more effective House of Lords with peers who are there to do a proper job of reforming bad legislation, such as challenging the government’s plans for a hard Brexit.
Nor was it able to suggest any reforms that make the second chamber more reflective of the range of political voices out in the country and therefore more democratic.
And so I must say sadly that any reform which doesn’t involve real democracy is a sham. There’s research showing that 67% of the British Public are in favour of elections to the upper chamber. If I daydream I could imagine sacking all the current peers now and having elections under proportional representation by Christmas. Unfortunately, because of Parliament’s vested interests in a two-party system, they would bog the process down in endless amendments, endless debate, and such plans would fail badly. Genuine democratic reform will only happen if people outside of Parliament can show their MPs that fair votes is a major and urgent priority. There are many signs that this is starting to happen, but we still have a long way to go.
It is a matter of huge concern that the Brexit Bill will be most fully debated and scrutinised by people in the Lords whom no one voted for. The Bill is likely to have a rough ride anyway, but at some point, some appointed peers will say something along the lines of not delaying the process anymore, or that some of the issues were in the Government’s manifesto, which we are not meant to overturn.
In sum, the report is a Good Thing, but the Lords need to take note that over a quarter of the British public would like them abolished completely. The Green Party believes that the proposed reforms are a small stepping stone towards a more democratic second chamber elected via a system of proportional representation. That is the only way to give the second chamber both the legitimacy it needs to occasionally challenge the government and also, to ensure that it reflects the many different voices in the country, not just a few.