What the public and peers think about the ‘reformed’ House of Lords

by Stephen Tall on January 5, 2008

Lord Tom McNally, Lib Dem leader in the House of Lords has drawn LDV’s attention to a paper by Dr Meg Russell, a senior research fellow in the Constitution Unit at University College London. Dr Russell has analysed results from the Unit’s public opinion survey on factors influencing the legitimacy of the House of Lords, as well as some figures from their survey of peers.

The briefing which accompanies the paper notes:

The public survey, carried out by Ipsos MORI in late October, asked which factors the public think are important to the legitimacy of the House of Lords. It found:

• More of the public consider it important that the House of Lords act in accordance with public opinion, that it consider legislation carefully and in detail, and that the appointments process for peers is trustworthy, than think it important for the chamber to include elected members.
• Forced to choose one or two factors that are most important to the legitimacy of the Lords, inclusion of elected members consistently scores fifth out of seven amongst the public, below these three factors and also below inclusion of independent members.
• Among respondents considering themselves knowledgeable about the Westminster Parliament the most important factor is the chamber considering legislation carefully, followed by trust in the appointments process. Inclusion of elected members ranks six out of seven.
• Asked whether both chambers of parliament are carrying out their policy role well, more of the public agree this is the case about the Lords than about the Commons. Amongst those knowledgeable about Parliament, this difference is more marked.

Dr Russell also summarises the paper’s findings of the views of peers:

• Peers state that the 1999 reform gave the chamber added confidence and legitimacy. They also believe that the public, government and pressure groups now have more respect for the House of Lords.
• Peers believe that the chamber’s power over ordinary legislation is about right, but many think it should have more power over ‘delegated’ legislation and constitutional matters.
• However, peers agree that government defeats are not their most important means of policy influence, and that persuading ministers to amend their own bills is more important.
• Asked which factors are most important to determining the legitimacy of the House of Lords, peers prioritise ‘trust in the appointments process’, ‘detailed legislative scrutiny’ and ‘presence of experts’ over other factors (including ‘presence of elected members’).

The paper, published last month, is available to read as a PDF file in full here.

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This is one of those “magic eye” pieces of research that seem to have been deliberately written to allow people to read into them what they want. Opponents of democratic reform will jump up and shout “the public doesn’t want elections!”. Supporters of democratic reform will reply with: “if you’d like to suggest a system of appointment which ensures a) fair balance between the parties [1], b) the Lords will act in accordance with public opinion [2] and c) trust in the appointments process [3], then they’ve been keeping pretty damn quiet about it until now.

Ultimately, the debate will rage over whether or not those three factors are improved or worsened by election. What this paper does seem to suggest is that the Lords themselves consider the first two to be largely irrelevant and are complacent about the third.

I find Doctor Russell’s conclusions incredible. The idea that you can simply magic a perfect appointments process out of thin air is ridiculous. The Steel Bill, which this paper appears calculated (in terms of timing and conclusions) to support, suggests a system whereby half the Lords should be appointed by just 9 people. Elections may have their flaws, but they are certainly less open to abuse than that.

[1] the Lib Dems for one remain dramatically under-represented in the Lords, with no plans to increase their representation currently under discussion

[2] the fact that the Lords often does reflect public opinion has more to do with how out of touch the government is than it has to do with the Lords’ closeness

[3] opponents of reform are currently proposing that the entire house be appointed by an inner cabal – how likely do you think that will remain trusted?

by James Graham on January 5, 2008 at 4:41 pm. Reply #

re point 3 above I suspect the final outcome will an elected lords using the same system as the Euros.
That will allow the parties to maintain an inner cabal is selecting candidates to a list and put their favorate sons & daughters to the top of the list and meet the demands for a representative election.

by Lloyd on January 5, 2008 at 4:59 pm. Reply #

Well, Lloyd, it’s certainly possible. But the government’s white paper supports partially open lists which, while not ideal, would be better than the Euro-system.

Plus, no-one forces people to vote for parties – if you don’t like their candidates you don’t have to vote for them. Plus, it is only the Labour Party that doesn’t have open selections for their Euro-candidates. The Lib Dems don’t have an inner cabal that selects their Euro-candidates, we have the whole membership.

by James Graham on January 5, 2008 at 5:05 pm. Reply #

James: “a) fair balance between the parties
b) the Lords will act in accordance with public opinion
c) trust in the appointments process
then they’ve been keeping pretty damn quiet about it until now.”

Sortition? It’s not just me that bangs on about it regularly.

I favour 150 selected by sortition, 150 as reps from next highest level of Govt (similar to the Bundesrat in Germany), 150 elected from large membership bodies (unions, the churches, campaigning organisations, etc, exactly which to be determined) and 50 appointed by an independent panel elected by the other 450 to be “experts”.

It’d be a nice mix of different people, include real normal people, reflect public opinion, include parties and non-partizan and give a degree of trust.

Democracy does not require elections everywhere to be democratic, ask the Athenians 😉

(and yes I know you know that James but others might not…)

by MatGB on January 6, 2008 at 12:20 pm. Reply #

I don’t think the Athenians had a clue about true democracy; ask their slaves.

As for sortition, it certainly has its place and I spend large amounts of my time in my day job defending it. It has a place in policy making, but its place is not in a legislature. Statistically speaking, unless you appoint a huge chamber, it will never be sufficiently representative to have legitimacy.

Plus, it would be the perfect system for introducing systematic corruption into the system. No political party deliberately appoints corrupt candidates; sortition actually guarantees a level of corruption in the system which can only undermine the rest.

We can’t have the equivalent of a Bundesrat until we have a Bundesrepublik. We don’t have a remotely federal system in the UK; how on earth would you determine who gets what or how to get the balance right between geographic and political representation? It would just be one long argument that would never get resolved.

The same would apply to the idea of having representatives of “large membership bodies”. Why would you want the RSPB deciding on human rights legislation? Why should the largely non-unionised workforce be unrepresented? Why should be institutionalise already entrenched vested interests in the form of the unions, the BMA, the CBI, etc?

As for the idea of appointing “experts” – we already know what happens if you have them in a legislature: nothing. On the one hand you have ridiculous situations like the Astronomer Royal deliberating on housing policy (does he determine it by looking at the stars?) on the other hand you have the fact that most experts will stay at home for most debates.

The place for experts is in presenting tesimony to scrutiny committees, not in the House itself.

However cynical people might be about election, I’m afraid your mish-mash of different systems would be even less popular than the status quo. There certainly is more to democracy than elections, but when it comes to appointing people who will decide our laws, its the best there is. I’m sorry if that is a terribly unfashionable thing to say, but there you go.

by James Graham on January 6, 2008 at 1:08 pm. Reply #

Again we have the discussion about how we elect the House of Lords without consideration of what it does.

Scrutiny of legislation is often pretty badly done by Parliament. Look at the 2003 Criminal Justice Act – “incapable of rational interpretation” as one Judge described it. The Companies Act 2006 – 800 clauses of which were not debated in the usual way. And that’s before we even start to consider the incorporation of EU legislation into UK law.

None of that will be changed by just altering the way the Lords is elected. The starting point should be the function of the upper house – which shouldn’t IMO be a mirror image of the lower house.

by Hywel Morgan on January 6, 2008 at 1:20 pm. Reply #

One of those pieces of evicence which changes one’s perspective.

We need a democratic element which can be relied upon to reflect public opinion? The best bet is clearly a Grand Jury of the nation selected by lot. Select, say 100 a year to serve for 5 years. Most of the time many will not attend; just like our old familiar, largely hereditary House but without its biases. Leaven with wise women and men selected by the Appointments Cimmission. If you add “experts” like the Law Lords, appoint them with voice but not vote. Add a power to reject or nullify delegated legislation, add a two thirds majority to at least one of the Commons votes required under the Parliament Act to over-rule the Lords on “constitutional” matters, and there you are. Reform complete without sweat. And think how popular the annual lottery to be a Lady or Lord of Parliament will be.

by Diversity on January 6, 2008 at 1:35 pm. Reply #

Hywel, I agree, it shouldn’t be a mirror, which is why you can’t separate off reform of one area, we need a convention to look at the lot at once.

James: “Statistically speaking, unless you appoint a huge chamber, it will never be sufficiently representative to have legitimacy.

Which is why I don’t want it dominated, merely a part of. Involving “normal” people gives “avarage Joe” a voice they may not normally have, but that voice can always be voted down if daft. I want to break the Westminster Village bubble, and this is a simple way of getting non-politicos in without a huge amount of damage.

Plus, it would be the perfect system for introducing systematic corruption into the system.

Not systematically. Sure, you’d get the odd random that is corrupt, which is why you’d need investigatory and impeachment systems, but the system itself wouldn’t be corrupt unless we make it so.

We can’t have the equivalent of a Bundesrat until we have a Bundesrepublik … It would just be one long argument that would never get resolved.

See above to Hywel—we’d need a convention to sort the rest out. Who knows, the people of England may vote for an English Parliament and thus we’d have one immediately. But we both agree that power needs to be devolved from Westminster, so we combine devolution with representation up. We can’t decide exactly how or how much independently of other issues.

Why should be institutionalise already entrenched vested interests

We don’t declare which bodies are in at the time of creation. We declare criteria such as number of members and democratic organisation. Then if people join them they get a voice. It’s a way of recognising that many people that are politically active are members not of parties but of single issue groups.

Again, not a moajority in the chamber, but a voice. For a revisionary chamber, experts and pressure groups could play an excellent role.

I suspect though James that thee and me will never agree on this. Which is also why I want a Convention followed by preferenda on a small number of options, on each of the main questions of how we’re governed.

I’d do Lords reform near the end of the process, simply because it’s too linked to other issues.

by MatGB on January 6, 2008 at 1:37 pm. Reply #

@ Diversity. Selection by lot is Sortition. So I agree with you on that.

by MatGB on January 6, 2008 at 1:38 pm. Reply #

Hywel: yes, fine. One of the reasons I’m so sceptical about people evoking a UK-“Bundesrat” is that I don’t think the Lords serves the same function. What I don’t accept is Russell argument that because the half-reforms of 1999 have lead to a more effective chamber, that full reform would lead to a worse one.

The positive aspects of 1999 have been in making the Lords more political, not less. If you look at voting patterns in the Lords, they actually rebel against the whip (slightly) less frequently than MPs. The strength of the system is the party balance, with no party in control, not in “experts” or fat cat businessmen being allowed to wrap themselves in ermine. Elections using a proportional voting system guarantee that balance; appointment, as we have seen with the lack of Green, UKIP and Lib Dem peers, only vaguely reflects it and invites abuse.

“Diversity” – I think you were very wise not to add your name to that comment. As I said above, sortition has its place. But the model you are proposing would be dreadful and would serve no purpose. We need good legislators in the second chamber; sortition simply cannot deliver you that (plus, see my other remarks above in response to Mat’s points).

by James Graham on January 6, 2008 at 1:47 pm. Reply #

“• Asked which factors are most important to determining the legitimacy of the House of Lords, peers prioritise ‘trust in the appointments process’, ‘detailed legislative scrutiny’ and ‘presence of experts’ over other factors (including ‘presence of elected members’).”

Well yes they would wouldn’t they? The least attractive part of the existing Lords is how many of its members think the place is fairly close to perfect. In particular a large majority think that appointed peers are the highest form of – well – appointment! That’s because they all think they ought to be there and few of them could expect to be there if there were elections.

Then Hywel rightly said that we should look first and foremost at functions and how parliament works. BUt he then said

“None of that will be changed by just altering the way the Lords is elected. The starting point should be the function of the upper house – which shouldn’t IMO be a mirror image of the lower house.”

No. The starting point should be how Parliament looks at legislation. If I remember correctly (Hywel will correct me!) the 800 clauses of the Companies Act problem was because they were added at the last minute at Report stage.

However it happened, they should have gone back into committee in both Houses.

There are of course many other things that could be improved.

Tony Greaves

by Tony Greaves on January 6, 2008 at 4:23 pm. Reply #

“No. The starting point should be how Parliament looks at legislation.”

I’m happy with that 🙂

I don’t know about the Companies Act – I try to read that as little as is possible 🙂 Helena Kennedy complained about the large number of late amendments – tabled by the government – made to the CJA 2003.

by Hywel Morgan on January 6, 2008 at 5:00 pm. Reply #

Nobody wants an elected HoL because they can see how badly elected politicians perform in their town halls and in the commons. This is partly because politicians who are elected do what is good electioneering, not that which they believe is right.

I’m with Mat: sortition is the way to go.

by Jennie on January 6, 2008 at 5:24 pm. Reply #

What do you mean “nobody” wants an elected House of Lords? Opinion polls taken over the last 10 years consistently show a clear majority (closer to two-thirds) support for a predominantly elected second chamber. The support for sortition, by contrast, is vanishingly small.

by James Graham on January 6, 2008 at 5:56 pm. Reply #

Blame post-work-tiredness for my lack of clarity, James.

Nobody in my scientifically selected and totally representative set of people I talk to about political stuff is what I meant. And mostly what I am doing when I talk to these people is remonstrating with them for not voting; they are the disaffected people, who think that an elected upper chamber will simply mean more expense, and that their vote makes Jack all difference anyway.

Last I heard, non-voters were coming close to a majority in this country. Now, if the Lib Dems could find a way to get THEM to vote…

But yes, I am anecdotal, and not backed up by Mori et all. Apologies.

by Jennie on January 6, 2008 at 6:04 pm. Reply #

And how will sortition improve that Jenny? I can see the argument that it will lead to a body that is vaguely representative of wider society (subject to a colossal margin of error), but the primary purpose of the second chamber is scrutiny and revision, not matching public opinion. How are you going to achieve that by plucking people off the street?

If sortition was so wildly popular, I would have thought the government’s plans for increased use of citizens’ juries would have been more widely welcomed. From talking to the same “scientifically selected and totally representative set of people” I find they are even more cynical about it than elections.

by James Graham on January 6, 2008 at 6:55 pm. Reply #

>> This is one of those “magic eye” pieces of research

Is the author the same Dr Meg Russell who is a Labour activist in Islington and close to former Labour cllr there (and now Labour MP for Wakefield) Mary Creagh?

Only askin’ …

by Dominic on January 6, 2008 at 9:14 pm. Reply #

The old House of Lords worked as well and as long as it did because there were always “accidental” members – hereditary Peers there by accident of birth – who proved competent at the job. If you have ever served on a British jury, you will have seen that the same capability to grasp complex questions is equally present in the general population. I have read some dozens of reports of citizens juries being used to grasp policy issues in different parts of the world; the randomly selected jury members never seem to fail to get to grips with the question.
What was wrong with the old House of Lords apart from its hereditary biases? Get rid of those, and we will have a House of Lords which I expect to function better than any appointed Senate, as well as most elected Senates in non-federal states, and without an electoral mandate competing with the Commons.
(I hope MatGB will forgive me for not saying “sortition”. It is just that I hate using ugly terms for beautiful concepts.)

by Diversity on January 7, 2008 at 12:24 pm. Reply #

@ Diversity: I have no problem with you using a different description as long as we know we’re agreeing. Sortition is a technical term, “grand jury” is a term I’d use to persuade people to support it that aren’t policy wonks like James and m’self.

@ James: “the primary purpose of the second chamber is scrutiny and revision, not matching public opinion”

But the research quoted in the article says that matching public opinion is considered a higher priority than elections (and thus more politicians). This would mean that to an extent, it does have “the public” involved.

“How are you going to achieve that by plucking people off the street?”

As Diversity says, the public can be remarkably good at scrutiny if you make it important enough.

” I would have thought the government’s plans for increased use of citizens’ juries would have been more widely welcomed … more cynical about it than elections.”

I think you answered your own questions there. From what I’ve sen of the Govts plans, they’re not going to be random, and they’re going to be small. I’m in favour of proper citizen’s juries, but glorified focus groups do not fill me with confidence.

And anything this Govt does on its own will be met with cynicism at the moment, we both know that, even when they do good we suspect it.

by MatGB on January 7, 2008 at 12:45 pm. Reply #

Diversity,

You simply cannot be allowed to equivocate chalk with cheese. A jury, and a citizens’ jury is a small body with a limited, specific function which winds up as soon as it has completed its talk. They work well when it is clear and unambiguous about what sort of answer they need to come up with (guilty or not guilty, electoral system X or electoral system Y), they work less well when given wildly open-ended decisions to make or when scrutinising detail, which is par for the course in the Lords.

You’re also talking about asking individuals to effectively put their lives on hold for five years to sit in a legislative chamber. It is hard enough asking people to do jury service – how are you going to convince the majority of the public that it is worth doing? Are you going to compel people to do it? Lock them up or fine them if they don’t comply?

I’m sure political hacks of the type that read this website would relish the chance, but they aren’t the sort of people sortition is meant to be attracting is it?

by James Graham on January 7, 2008 at 12:56 pm. Reply #

Mat,

The government’s plans for a Citizens’ Summit later this year is not about small, groups handpicked by polling companies. Thus far, they’ve been talking about something not dissimilar to a Canadian-style Citizens’ Assembly.

Again, I ask you, where are the voices (outside of my office) in support of this office? It may be many good things but wildly popular it is not.

And again, as I said above, stop comparing the type of scrutiny you might do in a jury (which is about weighing up evidence and examining detail ultimately coming up with a simple, closed answer) with the sort of detailed, line-by-line scrutiny that the House of Lords performs. The two simply aren’t equivalent.

by James Graham on January 7, 2008 at 1:02 pm. Reply #

James and other friends,

Juat think carefully about what we expected and received from the old accidental peers under the hereditary system. They participated – a few still do – in the detailed, line-by-line scrutiny that the Lords perform (when given the chance by adequately prepared legislation)and particpated in the simple closed vote decisions at the end of the process. Is there any basis for expecting a random selection of citizens to do worse?
Incidentally, jury decisions are of a yes/no type, like votes in the Houses of Parliament; but the reasoning behind them can be complex. The last time I served on a jury, we found the defendant not guilty. We agreed unaimously that she had committed a robbery, but also that she had been charged with the wrong robbery.
As to how our Peers by lot are persuaded to attend, we solved that with the old lot – give them an attendance allowance. It worked well enough.

by Diversity on January 7, 2008 at 7:56 pm. Reply #

Diversity, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.

Firstly, the hereditary system was broken and most of the story of UK constitutional reform of the 20th century was about attempting to fix it in various ways. It was ridiculously partisan.

It is widely recognised that it works much better now. Labour don’t appreciate the fact that it has a nasty habit of changing its precious legislation, but the balanced nature of the House means that it is likely to treat a Conservative government in the same way. It’s one thing I strongly agree with Meg Russell on.

Secondly, yes, at the end of the process peers merely have to engage in binary votes, but they also need to be in a position to draft amendments to legislation. If they don’t do the latter there is none of the former to do!

by James Graham on January 8, 2008 at 10:28 am. Reply #

James,

I agree. What was wrong with the hereditary system was that it was ridiculously partisan. What is right about the present House is that it is much less ridiculously partisan. Selection by lot/sortition will prevent it ever becoming so biased again, without setting up unnecessary conflict of authority between two elected houses.

I spent long hours listening to the old House of Lords at work (on balance it was less soporific than the Commons). The hereditaries were doing nothing that ordinary citzens could not do. Worthwhile amendments are always drafted with the Clerks’ advice.

by Diversity on January 9, 2008 at 5:19 pm. Reply #

You misunderstand my point.

The hereditary house was certainly partisan, but only one way. Indeed, it had such an institutional bias that it didn’t need to be tightly whipped.

The semi-reformed house is partisan, but it is balanced with no overall control. It is tightly whipped and indeed the members are slightly less likely to rebel than their colleagues in the Commons. That is its strength.

Take away that balance and you have… well, nothing much. You have a bunch of disparate individuals who may like or dislike what the government has just forced through the Commons but who have no real incentive to turn up and vote; who will constantly be told they should respect the wishes of the elected government; who will be constantly told that the finest minds the government has consulted tell them they’re policy is right.

In short, there will be whipping, but it will be the government bullying people into submission.

I love your idea that everything will be fine because the Clerks will be able to tell them what to do. Of course they will, but that’s called bureaucracy. I’d rather put my faith in politicians if its all the same to you.

by James Graham on January 9, 2008 at 5:29 pm. Reply #

I’d rather put my faith in politicians if its all the same to you.

And that lies at the root of the disagreement. I’m a big fan of representative democracy, but I’d rather not put my faith in elected politicians, hence my support for other options as part of the solution. Like I said way up, I doubt we’ll agree on this, but the heart of the issue is I think that line.

by MatGB on January 9, 2008 at 7:09 pm. Reply #

But my point was, Mat, that using sortition in this way would mean the real power being rooted in the government and the Clerks.

I discussed this thread with one of my colleagues this evening who has probably got more experience in getting legislation passed through the private members’ bill process than anyone else alive. His response to Diversity’s comment “worthwhile amendments are always drafted with the Clerks’ advice,” was a very hollow laugh.

by James Graham on January 9, 2008 at 8:04 pm. Reply #

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