Upper House needs to change, say Norfolk and Suffolk peers
- Credit: PA
Is the House of Lords in need of major reform? Annabelle Dickson sought the views of those in the know.
It was seen by many as one of the signs major cracks were appearing in the coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
In 2012, an ashen-faced Nick Clegg announced that plans for major reform of the House of Lords had been abandoned after prime minister David Cameron allegedly 'broke the coalition' contract.
Had they been approved, the changes to the make-up of the Lords would have seen 80pc of peers elected and the total number of members almost halved to 450.
The aim, said backers of the move, was to make it more democratic, less reliant on those who, some felt, had no right to make major decisions affecting our country.
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Three years down the line, while reform is still on the agenda, it's currently unlikely to be anything like the scale of change that was initially being discussed.
However, even the Lords themselves agree that some change is needed, with one Norfolk crossbench peer revealing today how she was weighing up retirement as she agreed that a fixed-term should be introduced.
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Baroness Murphy, a former community psychiatrist who became a National Health Service manager, university visiting professor and chair of a London health authority before being appointed to the House of Lords, said the size of the Lords should be dramatically reduced and a fixed term of 10 years brought in.
'Enough for we so-called 'experts' to make our contribution but not so long to become old has-beens which many are,' she explained. 'I am actively thinking of retiring soon now that we can. The pull of Norfolk is stronger than the pull of Westminster, but I still have one or two things to clear up first.'
Her desire to restrict the numbers of Lords, which are approaching 800, is shared by a number of other peers.
Former head of the British Army Lord Dannatt said there should be a retirement age of between 75 and 80.
While new rules to allow peers to retire have already been brought in, it is not mandatory, although so far 35 have either retired or announced their intention to retire.
Lord Dannatt also said the number of hereditary peers, who were kept in place amid sweeping reforms under Tony Blair, should be reduced.
The current system means that when one peer dies, a by-election is held among the peers to top it back up to 92.
'If one wanted to start to reduce the number one might stop that process.
'Alternatively we could take the hard-nosed view that it is not very 21st century to have hereditary peers and those peers are thanked for their contribution and leave the House of Lords, albeit recognising that a number of them are heavily engaged. They could be given a life peerage.'
Members of the House of Lords have been debating reform and earlier this month peers held a debate where 44 peers spoke.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland said the numbers were undermining its effectiveness.
'We cannot go on with the vast numbers that are being sent through to the chamber from the politicians in the Commons. This is undermining the effectiveness of the House and making it very difficult for Peers to make interventions.
'Many of us would like to speak on issues during question time but find it impossible to get into the slot. We should first look at level of attendance and contribution, there are some people who never speak and others who seldom attend.
'I do not think that age should be the measure but competence, none of us should be above some kind of assessment. However I doubt whether anyone is brave enough to take this way forward.'
Baroness Hollis said political nominations should be reduced, saying the most recent list of new peers was 'improper'.
She defended the Lords' role in scrutinising legislation, however, adding: 'Most bills are not properly scrutinised in the Commons; sometimes because the MPs do not have detailed knowledge of the topic –whereas the Lords is packed with specialists of all sorts, in law, business, medicine, agriculture, education etc – often because of Commons' time limits, so whole chunks of a Bill are never even discussed.'
Lord Howarth of Newport said the House of Lords was fully conscious of its lack of democratic authority and for that reason it always ultimately deferred to the democratic authority of the elected House of Commons. 'While I am very proud to be a member of the House of Lords I strongly believe that the House is in need of reform,' he said.
The Bishop of Norwich said: 'It is far too large at the moment, and it has become increasingly difficult for peers to participate.
'My own view is that when a life peer is nominated there should be a 15-year term when expenses can be claimed, but after that no expenses would be permitted though the peer could continue to attend and contribute at their own expense. This would sustain the spirit of self-regulation, give peers a long enough period of participation, and encourage rather than impose retirement.'
It's a view shared by the Electoral Reform Society, which believes that while some members of the House of Lords work hard, as a whole it 'costs far too much for an institution that fails to represent the British public'.
It published a recent report showing that a total of £1.2m was claimed in expenses and allowances last year by peers who did not speak and that 116 have failed to speak at all since the start of the 2014 parliamentary session, but have claimed £830,418 between them.
Its chief executive, Katie Ghose, described its findings as a 'national scandal' and said: 'The case is now stronger than ever for serious reform of Britain's unelected upper chamber – a chamber that is spiralling out of control, both in terms of size and cost. The prime minister says he regrets not reforming the chamber in the last parliament.
'Given these new findings, now is the time to act on that and get on with the vital work of ensuring we have a democratic upper house, where the public finally get a say.'