Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by John F H Smith

I should like to make a submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s Inquiry, “House of Lords Reform: What Next?”.

My credentials for doing so are a longstanding interest in Lords reform—I submitted evidence to the Wakeham Commission and the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, and had an article on the subject published in the Church Times (13 May 2011)—and have recently been working on a way forward with Lord Low of Dalston, Martin Wright, former Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, and Dr Alex Reid, former Director of the Royal Institute of British Architects. I am a Medallist of the Order of the British Empire, a graduate historian of the University of York, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. This submission is mine alone.

The title of the Inquiry includes the general phrase, “What Next?” but the remit seems to restrict itself to small-scale changes. However, I wonder if the question, “what next”, might include a little more:—as well as clearing the ground, and without going into actual details of more major reform, could not recommendations be made for a longer-term way forward, and a route map and possible timetable for real reform.

Accompanying this submission is my paper, House of Lords: a proposed model for reform based on a method of selection derived from the function of the House,1 which amplifies some of the points made here, and complements the part of your remit asking for suggestions on the relative numbers of the different parties in the House. My paper concentrates on the selection and indirect election of the crossbenchers.

On the points set out in your “Call for Evidence”, I should like to make specific comment:

(i)any suggestions for minor reform and the removal of abuses should not have the potential of interfering with proposals for the more major reform of the House;

(ii)I have a general concern over small scale changes applied to any organisation; they have a habit of becoming permanent and result in inhibiting true reform; and

(iii)on the question of the principles that should determine the relative numbers of the different parties in the Lords, Dr Alex Reid has proposed a system that makes a serious contribution to this discussion. He will in all likelihood be making an independent submission to your inquiry, but his proposals are set out in Appendix II of the accompanying paper referred to above.

To amplify my first point, many will agree with a tidying up process, but it is difficult to agree on where this ends and larger reform begins. While mechanisms to reduce the size of the House, such as no longer replacing hereditary peers when they die, or removing persistent absentees might seem admirable, introducing fixed terms or a retirement age for peers is straying into the wider field of reform. (Again, see the attached paper.) A moratorium on new peers seems laudable but also has dangers. It is true that, largely through Prime Ministerial patronage, 117 new peers were created in less than a year after May 2010, and this is an unsatisfactory situation; but it is openness to new expertise and experience that is the lifeblood of any organisation, especially so in the case of the House of Lords. Perhaps any moratorium should be for political appointees only and allow the House of Lords Appointments Commission to continue to appoint a small defined maximum number of non-party political peers.

I should like to add that in the light of the recent failure of the House of Lords Reform Bill and our present very difficult economic situation, reform of the House of Lords is not considered an urgent topic. But reform is badly needed and it is over a century since the first attempts were made: Parliament Act 1911, Bryce Commission 1918, Parliament Act 1949, Salisbury Convention, Life Peerages Act 1958, Peerage Act 1963, 1968 White paper, House of Lords Act 1999, Wakeham Commission 2000, and the many various parliamentary reports and papers since 2000. Despite its predicament the House still performs a valuable function but reform is urgent. It is strongly hoped that this will concentrate on retaining present strengths and reinforcing them, rather than introduce new concepts that may have unforeseen consequences and could undermine the work of the House and upset the delicate constitutional balance.

Clearing the ground with the removal of abuses and introducing small-scale changes as interim measures will, taking into account the reservations I have made, provide a good base for future movement.

13 March 2013

1 Background paper not published

Prepared 16th October 2013