Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Reform of the House of Lords

  This is a personal reflection in response to the consultation paper, and is not to be construed as in any way part of the official Church of England response.


  Two preliminary principles should dictate the style and scope of any reform:

    (1)  The general character of the House should be preserved as far as possible, on the grounds that the genius of our political system lies in its gradual evolution rather than in sudden drastic change. The extent to which both Houses rely on conventions rather than on enforceable rules is a further reason for favouring as much continuity as possible.

    (2)  The need for a second chamber arises from the inherent deficiencies of government by a single chamber elected on a popular vote. The role of the Upper House, therefore must be to complement the House of Commons and to compensate for these deficiencies.

  As de Tocqueville pointed out 150 years ago, representational democracy based on universal suffrage, though undoubtedly the least worst form of government, is not an unmixed blessing. He noted among other things that it tends to discourage participation by people of real ability.

    "The race of American statesmen has evidently dwindled most remarkably in the last 50 years . . . While the natural instincts of democracy induce the people to reject distinguished citizens as their rulers, an instinct not less strong induces able men to retire from the political arena, in which it is so difficult to retain their independence, or to advance without becoming servile."

  But then he went on: "It is no doubt of importance to the welfare of nations that they should be governed by men of talents and virtue; but it is perhaps still more important for them that the interests of those men should not differ from the interests of the community at large; for if such were the case, their virtues might become almost useless and their talents might be turned to bad account". The great strength of popular democracy is that those elected "may frequently be faithless and frequently mistaken, but they will never systematically adopt a line of conduct hostile to the majority . . .".

  It is not hard to see some parallels with our own day. Politics is a rough game, with little attraction for those who are distinguished in other spheres of life. There is a widespread distrust of politicians, and there is reason to be worried about the poor quality of much actual political performance. No doubt part of the problem lies in the greatly increased demands made on political leadership. But if de Tocqueville was right in his analysis, the obvious advantage of a bi-cameral parliamentary system is that it gives scope for people to enter it by two quite different routes, and to perform two different but related functions. The elected chamber must be the ultimate authority in policy-making, since policies ought by and large to serve the interests of the majority. The non-elected chamber, with a membership chosen primarily for its abilities, its experience, and its representation of other interests, needs authority to criticise the means by which policy is to be implemented, in the light of its larger and longer-term implications.

  Pursuing this analysis a little further, it would seem that some of the specific deficiencies in our democratic system today are:

    (1)  The electoral system, while in theory the basis of popular democracy, is so heavily dependent on the political parties that power actually resides in very few hands. Independence of mind is a rare commodity, made rarer by dependence on the patronage of party leaders for political advancement. The House of Commons, therefore, is severely limited in its ability to keep a check on the Government, particularly when the ruling party has a large majority. Nor can the committee system in which, it is said, most of the real debate takes place, compensate for the lack of parliamentary accountability, since most of the work of committees is done out of the public eye and may in any event be ignored.

    (2)  Dependence on the popular vote, and the fear of losing popularity, encourage short-termism and cosmetics—tendencies which are greatly exaggerated these days by the influence and fickleness of the media. Opposition parties may criticise Government short-sightedness, but they too have their eyes on the next election.

    (3)  Lack of expertise in fields outside politics has been exacerbated by the modern tendency for politics itself to become a profession.

  Such deficiencies are part of the price to be paid for the democratic legitimacy of the Commons in its claim to represent, albeit somewhat crudely, the will of the majority. The key question, therefore, is whether the Upper House can be so constituted as to compensate for them, without forfeiting authority to represent the broader and longer-term national interest.

  Popular election is not the only basis for a legitimate role in revising and influencing legislation, or acting as a brake on abuses of power. The Judiciary has recently been given a closely related role through the Human Rights Act. This has led to well-based fears about its potential politicisation and the failure to separate powers, but the point is implicitly conceded that there can and must be constraints on an electoral majority. The House of Lords, in previously exercising such constraints, has frequently demonstrated another kind of legitimacy through the quality of its work. There is a legitimacy of good argument and first-hand knowledge, as well as a legitimacy of numbers. An unelected body need not necessarily be seen as unaccountable to the nation at large, provided that its mode of appointment is transparent and reasonable publicity is given to its proceedings. In fact if it is to counterbalance the power of the Commons, and to compensate for the latter's inevitable shortcomings, there are positive reasons why it should not be elected.

  Representative democracy is essentially utilitarian, in that it depends in the last resort on individuals expressing preferences which are decided generally in the light of their own self-interest. Politicians may appeal to concepts of the common good, but it is difficult for most people to internalise this except in terms of the corporate interests which most closely concern them. Corporate interests, however, are not directly represented at a parliamentary level. The sponsorship of certain MPs by Trade Unions was a step in this direction, but was fatally flawed by the potential conflict of interest between an MPs electorate and his sponsor.

  In a different, non-electoral context, there need be nothing inherently wrong in the representation of such interests. In fact it is worth noting that, in the early nineteenth century debates on extending the suffrage, Gladstone's opposition was based on his belief that only corporate interests could take a sufficiently well-informed and long term view of what constituted the common good. This was a disastrous mistake at the time because it would have denied power to the majority of individuals. But if it is clear that the ultimate power to decide policy lies with a House elected on universal suffrage, there would seem to be positive advantages in having the main corporate interests in the country represented in the Upper House. These would, for the most part, fall outside party influence, would tend to have a longer perspective, and would bring various kinds of expertise into the parliamentary system. The composition of a House based on corporate interests would be representative of the nation in a different way from that of the Commons, and its members could enjoy a certain distancing from immediate political pressures. It could also help to bridge the gulf between national government and other social institutions, thus increasing rather than decreasing the sense of direct participation in government. In short there is a viable alternative to popular election, and strong reasons why it would be a grave mistake to have a wholly elected Upper House. Even if the electorate were differently constituted from that of the Commons, the likelihood is that the deficiencies of the Commons would simply be reproduced in another form.


  The Upper House needs a core body of direct political representatives to process its day to day work, and who can be held to account by their parties. The main political parties, therefore, should be classed as major corporate interests, and should be free to appoint members of the House in numbers proportional to their total vote at the previous general election. There should be an upper limit to the number of such members, and their tenure should not be affected by changes in party fortunes at general elections. The proportions, therefore, would not remain exact, but could be adjusted when there were vacancies.

  Other corporate interests to be represented might include the Law, Industry and Commerce, Unions, Science and Medicine, the Armed Forces, Agriculture, Education, the Arts, Religion and Local Government. The list would have to be limited, and might be drawn up to coincide more or less with those areas of public life served by the various Departments of State, plus a somewhat broader based religious representation.

  There is a good case for saying that at least some representation in these fields should be ex officio. The presence of bishops in the Lords demonstrates that ex-officio representation can work, but that it needs a fairly large pool of members on which to draw, since ex-officio members, by definition, have other jobs to do. University Vice-Chancellors, for instance, form a somewhat similar group, as do the Presidents of Learned Societies, the leaders of Trades Unions, and the Chairmen of Local Authorities.

  It is inevitable that a House which is going to command wide respect and contain varied expertise should have both working and occasional members. It is also clear that people of the calibre suggested are not going to be interested if they are required to stand for election and thereafter commit themselves to regular attendance. One of the strengths of the present House of Lords is precisely the flexibility which allows those with special knowledge or interests to attend on appropriate occasions without compromising their normal method of earning a living. A further advantage of this dual standard is that only those core members required to attend regularly would need to be paid.

  Ex-officio membership would only be practicable for certain forms of corporate interest. Other interests could be represented, after proper consultation, by members chosen by an independent appointments panel. This could also bear in mind such issues as age and gender, and allow scope for a limited number of popular nominations.

  It is inherent in these suggestions that the connection between membership of the Upper House and the award of a title could not be sustained. This would be as said break with tradition, but like Knights, Lords can have social significance outside the parliamentary context. Breaking the connection would remove the temptation to confer peerages for merely party political reasons, and might thus indirectly serve to increase the respect in which the honour is held.

  Titles should be for life, but life-long membership of the House is no longer defensible. However, since the main function of the House should be to take the long view for the common good, and to provide a safeguard against constitutional abuse, tenure should be different from that of the Commons, and preferably much longer. The tenure of ex-officio members should depend on their office—as for bishops at present. For the remainder, I suggest either a retiring age or an individual tenure of at least 10 years.

  I envisage such a House fulfilling much the same role as the present House, with initiating and delaying powers and some reserve constitutional powers. I see no merit in giving it any special role in relation to devolved assemblies or the European Community. In these the most difficult questions are likely to concern money and the distribution of power, both of which should be the prime responsibility of the elected chamber.

  In the recent debate in the Lords on the future of the House strong distaste was expressed by some members for the kind of mixed economy I have been advocating. There is a deceptive simplicity about the idea of an all-elected House, and I can see its political attractions. Nevertheless one of the great strengths of the present House lies in the fact that its members have come to be there by so many different routes—some for historical reasons, others on sheer merit, yet others through long service in different walks of life. Variety is a defence against the marginalisation of actual parliamentary debate, since it introduces an important element of unpredictability, and thus increases the likelihood that members will listen to, and be persuaded by, arguments. Those who recall the beginnings of democracy will realise that this is a much more democratic way of making decisions than slavishly following the party line.

John Habgood

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Prepared 25 February 2002