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Do we need the House of Lords?

All legislation has to be passed by both Houses of Parliament. The House of Lords is currently debating the EU (Withdrawal) Bill and has already defeated the Government seven times, by large majorities, amending this Bill.

Previously, their Lordships voted to ask the Government to rethink its position on remaining in a customs union, contrary to the Prime Minister’s intentions. This week they voted with a majority of 91 to amend the Bill to give Parliament the last word on the Brexit deal. If sufficient Conservative MPs vote with the Opposition parties in favour of that amendment, it will become law. It would mean that if Parliament is not satisfied with the deal Theresa May does with the EU, she can be ordered to go back and obtain a better deal.

The most likely obstacle to an acceptable deal is the Irish border issue. The EU does not like Theresa May’s proposed solution to that issue and has said that if she does not find a better one there would have to be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which no-one wants because it could undermine the peace achieved through the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The obvious solution to that problem is for the UK to remain in a customs union. Hard line Brexiteers say this would conflict with the peoples’ wish to leave the EU and they have threatened a vote of ‘no confidence’ in Theresa May if she took this option. They see this as a constitutional conflict between the democratically expressed will of the people and the unelected House of Lords.

I have written previously on the validity of interpreting the referendum result in relation to detailed aspects of Brexit and want here to examine the role and legitimacy of the House of Lords proposing actions with which Brexiteers disagree.

The House of Lords is essentially a revising chamber composed of highly experienced people, including former Ministers and senior MPs, who are not as tightly bound as MPs by party discipline. Abolishing it would lose the expertise they contribute and reduce a valuable check on the power of the Government. It is significant that most nations have bicameral parliaments, though most have elected second chambers.

 By convention the Lords respect a Government’s clear general election mandates but the 2016 referendum only gave the Government a mandate to leave the EU and did not specify the details of the deal they were to negotiate.  It is nonsense to argue, as some Brexiteers have, that the referendum instructed the Government not to remain in a customs union. Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are in the customs union without being members of the EU.

At the same time, the House of Lords is open to criticism on at least four grounds. That Prime Ministers and party leaders nominate people to be peers gives them patronage power. An Appointments Commission vets nominations but experience suggests that its scrutiny is not as rigorous as one might wish. There is a suspicion that major party donors have not been given peerages for their political acumen.

There is no retirement age for Peers and they cannot be removed as MPs can. The number of hereditary Peers has been reduced to 92, elected by their fellow hereditary Peers. The Lords are also predominantly male (74%) and ethnic minorities are underrepresented (6.4%).  Some also object to the 26 Anglican Bishops who sit in the Lords but from a Christian perspective their pastoral and prayerful contributions can be seen as worth having.

There are arguments for replacing the House of Lords with an elected second Chamber but they are not rooted in anything to do with Brexit. Ideally any reform should not be linked to a specific, controversial policy issue but debated solely on how best to make the British constitution work well for us all.

 

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