The House of Lords

The White Paper

Pointer Foreword
Pointer Chapter 1. Executive Summary
Pointer Chapter 2. Introduction: modernising the House of Lords.
Pointer Chapter 3. The present House of Lords.
Pointer Chapter 4. Role of a second chamber.
Pointer Chapter 5. Modernising the Lords: hereditary peers.
Pointer Chapter 6. Modernising the Lords: a transitional house.
Pointer Chapter 7. Modernising the Lords: longer-term reform - what should the modernised House do?
Pointer Chapter 8. Modernising the Lords: longer-term reform ­ the compostion of a reformed House of Lords.
Pointer Back to the introduction.

CHAPTER 2

INTRODUCTION:
MODERNISING THE HOUSE OF LORDS

1.Parliament is where the will of Britain's people is expressed: where the temper, direction and course of our country is set. Parliament is the core of political accountability in Britain, where the decision of the electorate to support a published programme of policies is transformed into legislation, into consideration of the opportunities and difficulties facing the nation, and into leadership in government.

2. But for Parliament to carry out these functions, it must rest on the assent of the people of Britain. To sustain that, it must carry out its work with authority, and with integrity. In recent years, both the authority and integrity of Parliament have been questioned, and its representativeness subject to ever-closer scrutiny. Parliament itself has taken steps to respond to this challenge to its role and performance, by improving its standards and examining its practices.

3. The Government is a strong supporter of these changes. But as part of its programme of renewal for Britain, the Government believes that there are a number of fundamental constitutional improvements which will enhance Britain's democracy, improve the connections between the people of Britain and those they put in place to represent them, and strengthen the framework and coherence of our country as a whole.

4. People across the country have made clear what they want. Referendums and subsequent developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have shown a clear appetite for change, and a determination to achieve it. The result will be new democratic mechanisms: a new Parliament in Scotland, and new assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland ­ the last a new way of bridging divides which offers the best chance of peace for more than a generation. In England, new development structures will improve regional accountability. The people of London have made clear how they want to be governed. Across the country, a programme of reform and renewal of people's local decision-making is being put into place in local government. All these developments will reconnect people with power in Britain: bringing power closer to people, decentralising power by moving the means of democratic accountability to where people want it to be.

5. Parliament is not exempt from this process of reform, nor should it be. In the House of Commons, a significant programme to modernise the procedures has already been agreed. This has included changes to strengthen the scrutiny of European legislation. The Independent Commission on the Voting System has reported, and its report has already been subject to debate in the Commons.1

6. The Government believes that Britain, like other large mature democracies, needs a two-chamber legislature. While other major democracies show a wide range of variation in how they form their second chambers, a second chamber is a feature of almost all of them. But the second chamber must have a distinctive role and must neither usurp, nor threaten, the supremacy of the first chamber.

7.Ensuring that the principal democratic mechanism of Britain ­ the House of Commons ­ works in the best possible way is important. The ability of the elected Government to fulfil its electoral contract with the British people and deliver what they have asked it to do primarily depends on the proper performance of the House of Commons, but it rests too on an effective and balanced second chamber ­ the House of Lords. While the House of Commons clearly reflects the wishes of the people, and so is the source of both legitimacy and power of the elected Government, the House of Lords has an important role as a significant element in the legislative process. The House of Lords cannot be immune from change. The House of Lords needs to adapt and modernise.

8.The House of Lords has a number of functions within Parliament ­ considering and amending legislation, questioning the Government through debates and questions to Ministers, debating matters of public interest and carrying out specialist investigations through select committees of the House. These are all important jobs for a second chamber, and the increasing volume and complexity of Government work and Government legislation means that both the workload of the House of Lords is increasing and its contribution to the legislative process is greater.

9. The most distinctive and important role of the present House of Lords is the specialist expertise and independent perspective it can bring to the scrutiny of legislation. But the House of Lords and the work it carries out suffer from its lack of legitimacy, because the presence of the hereditary peers creates a permanent, inbuilt majority for a single party. For its functions to be properly performed, the House of Lords needs a degree of legitimacy which it does not now enjoy. This limits the extent to which it can make a proper contribution as a second Parliamentary chamber. The anachronistic and unrepresentative nature of its own composition is at the root of this deficiency.

10. Institutions need to change if they are properly to reflect and serve the society which supports them. Institutions of government in particular need constantly to be examined for their continuing responsiveness to changing circumstances, to ensure that they fully carry out the functions they are designed to fulfil.

11.Historically, the House of Lords was the first chamber of Parliament and used to be the pre-eminent chamber. Its role, functions and powers have obviously diminished with the spread of suffrage throughout the 19th and 20th centuries but even in a country without a written constitution, evolutionary change does not always ensure that institutions naturally change in a way which matches demands made upon them by a developing society. Twice already this century legislative intervention has been needed to make the House of Lords better fitted for the functions it is now called upon to fulfil. The Parliament Act of 1911, further amended in 1949, circumscribed the powers of the House of Lords to ensure that, except in the case of a Bill to extend the life of a Parliament, the will of the House of Commons over primary legislation should always prevail. In 1958, the Life Peerages Act was passed, establishing a new form of membership of the House of Lords in a move which has significantly altered the composition of the House. These were important reforms, particularly in introducing to the House able and talented people from differing backgrounds and with different skills to bring to the House and its work. But though significant, these reforms did not wholly address the fundamental problems of the House ­ the deficiencies in its legitimacy arising from its method of selection. The Government is not bringing forward any immediate proposals to modify the powers of the House of Lords. Such issues are for examination when considering longer-term reform of the House. But the Government does now want to move to fundamental reform of the make-up of the Lords.

THE GOVERNMENT'S PROPOSALS

12. The Government is committed to ending the anachronisms of the composition of the House of Lords. The Government made its position clear in its election manifesto, when it proposed a step-by-step reform of the House of Lords.

13. We will now take the first steps towards the fulfilment of that commitment.

The Government believes that a step-by-step process is the best way to proceed. It is consistent with the incremental approach which has characterised much constitutional development in this country. But at the same time, it is a radical approach ­ one which, taken as a whole, will mark a fundamental transformation of a key part of the central democratic institution of Parliament.

Hereditary peers

14. The Government will introduce legislation to remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords. This is a radical change to the way Britain is governed ­ one of the most radical seen this century. It is a major reform of the House of Lords, and a significant step in the modernisation of Parliament ­ a step which reformers have been unable to secure for the whole of this century. This Government is determined to carry it through. We believe it will command the widespread support of the people of Britain.

15 The Government believes that the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords is a significant factor in the lack of political effectiveness and balance of the House. We believe no individuals should have the right to be members of Parliament solely on the basis of the actions or position of their ancestors. A place in the legislature should be reserved for those who achieve it on their own merits. The continuing right of the whole hereditary peerage to sit and vote has been accepted as an anomaly for most of this century, even by the House of Lords itself.

16. The hereditary peerage numbers well over half the membership of the House of Lords. The presence in the House of this large number of hereditary peers constitutes an element of the Lords which is unresponsive to political and social change. No matter what the outcome of a general election, political control of the second chamber of Parliament never alters. It ensures that the Conservative Party has a 3 to 1 built-in majority over the Labour Party. Taken as a whole, the hereditary peerage is not representative of the country politically, socially, economically or above all by gender or ethnic origin. While the hereditary peers retain their dominant position, the House as a whole can never hope to be representative. In future, hereditary peers will have the same democratic rights as other citizens: no less ­ but certainly no more. They will be able to vote for members of the House of Commons; they will be able to stand as candidates for the House of Commons; but they will no longer be members of the House of Lords by right of birth.

The Government's proposals for the resulting House of Lords

17. The Government is proposing a far-reaching examination of the long-term future of the House of Lords following the removal of the hereditary peers.While that review is taking place, and until longer-term change is implemented, the ending of the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the Lords will change the composition and complexion of the House of Lords. Such a radical change will in itself amount to a marked improvement of the House, removing much of the cause of its deficit in both effectiveness and balance. But the reform will also create the need for a revised, transitional House.

18. The Government rejects suggestions that the removal of the hereditary peers creates a transitional house of unfettered patronage totally at the disposal of the government of the day. It has always been the case that any Prime Minister can ask the Sovereign to create new peerages to alter the balance of the House of Lords. This is a power governments have threatened to use in the past ­ even at times when there were only hereditary peers in the House. The present members of the life peerage have been nominated by eight different Prime Ministers over forty years since the Life Peerages Act was passed in 1958. It is a myth that a House without hereditary peers thereby becomes the creation of a single administration.

19. Far from increasing the power of patronage of the Prime Minister, the Government's proposals for a transitional House will circumscribe it. For the transitional House, the Government will ensure that no one political party commands a majority in the Lords. The Government presently plans to seek only broad parity with the Conservatives. It will:

Longer-term reform

20.The Government believes that the removal of hereditary peers is a necessary and a radical change to the House of Lords and to the way Britain is governed. Addressing the distortions created by the dominance of the hereditary peerage is the most pressing reform of the House of Lords. But it is far from the only reform necessary.

21. Previous attempts this century at reforming the House of Lords have failed. Because they have failed, the hereditary peers continue to sit and vote even as their claim to the right becomes increasingly tenuous. The continued question of the fate of the hereditary peers has in practice provided a distraction from full, dispassionate consideration of what the United Kingdom actually wants and needs in its second chamber. Full-scale reform of the House of Lords will require consideration of a large number of complex issues. This White Paper sets out many of them. But the Government does not believe that it is necessary to do nothing until it is possible to do everything. Resolving the issue of the hereditary peers first will free those considering reform to concentrate not on the past ­ but on the future.

22. In its election manifesto, the Government said that a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament would be set up to consider longer-term reform. The Government acknowledges that those who understand how Parliament works can make a special contribution in refining the options before any legislation is introduced. But there is widespread and legitimate public interest in the question of the reform of the House of Lords. The Government wants to take full account of differing views about change to the democratic institution of Parliament. We want to make the process of examination of future reform of the Lords as open and transparent as possible.We want the process of examination and recommendation to be inclusive, and open to public involvement.We have therefore decided that the Joint Committee should be preceded by a Royal Commission which will do much of the preliminary work of examining the issues and analysing the options. We do not believe this will delay the process of considering more fundamental reforms. The Royal Commission will be meeting outside the Parliamentary process. It can, therefore, begin work while the Bill concerned with the hereditary peers is still going through Parliament, which would not have been a practical possibility for the Joint Committee.

23.The terms of reference for the Royal Commission will be:

''Having regard to the need to maintain the position of the House of Commons as the pre-eminent chamber of Parliament and taking particular account of the present nature of the constitutional settlement, including the newly devolved institutions, the impact of the Human Rights Act and developing relations with the European Union:

The Royal Commission will be ready to begin its work shortly.

24.The Government believes that the Royal Commission can and should complete its work within the tight deadline we have set. This will allow the Commission's recommendations to be considered by the Government and the other political parties in advance of the next general election. It is for the Royal Commission itself to arrange its own programme of work. We wish it to consider all the options for reform, consistent with its terms of reference, without advance prescription.

25.The Government has itself considered the issues involved, and the final chapters of this White Paper detail some of this consideration.

CONCLUSION

26.The Government wants to see the House of Lords as a modern, fit and effective second chamber of Parliament for the 21st century. We believe it can be that. The removal of the purely hereditary basis of the majority of the House ­ anomalous, unrepresentative and insupportable ­ will be a radical step in itself. But it will be followed by further reform. The Royal Commission is the right means to examine longer-term reform and to make recommendations for the Government to consider. A fully reformed second chamber will have a vital role in the renewed democracy of Britain.


1.The Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, Cm 4090,

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