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Labour’s constitutional reform proposals explained

16 Jun 2024 5 minute read
Chamber of the House of Lords. Picture by the UK Parliament (CC BY 3.0).

Stephen Clear, Lecturer in Constitutional and Administrative Law, and Public Procurement, Bangor University

The Labour party has committed to immediately legislating to remove hereditary peers from the House of Lords if elected to government. It will also impose retirement on members of the House of Lords at the age of 80.

This would immediately reduce the size of the upper house of parliament. There are 91 hereditary peers, and figures from 2020 show that, at that time, there were 154 peers aged over 80 and 297 peers aged 70 to 79.

Two-phase reform

This is the first part of a two-phase reform set out in the party’s 2024 election manifesto.

The second phase is less clear. The broad direction is to improve the appointments process to improve national and regional balance in the House of Lords. The manifesto reiterates Labour’s commitment to replacing the Lords with an alternative second chamber that is more representative – but this will be achieved via a consultation with the British public about how politics can best serve them.

This is reasserting Labour’s commitment towards more significant constitutional change, in line with the recommendations made by a commission led by former prime minister Gordon Brown in 2022. But it is kicking a decision on what exactly this will look like, and when, into the long grass. Brown had wanted a fully elected house.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown (left) and Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer. Picture by Jane Barlow / PA Wire

The manifesto also hints at measures to restore the reputation of the upper chamber, with tougher requirements on attending (at the moment a peer has to be absent for months on end to be suspended). It will be easier to remove disgraced peers and the appointments process will be improved. However, crucially, there is no detail on any of these plans.

Why does the House of Lords need reform?

In its current form, the House of Lords  is the second chamber in the lawmaking process within the UK parliament. Rather than being elected to the role, its members (the peers) are appointed.

While the total membership of the Lords fluctuates, at around 800 sitting members, it is considered one of the largest legislative bodies in the world. Most peers sit in the chamber either as life peers, meaning they have been nominated for their whole lives by a political party, or as a non-affiliated “crossbencher”, based on their expertise or life experience. The idea here is to bring in people who could contribute to thorough scrutiny of the government and proposals for new laws.

Alongside this, and perhaps more contentiously, there are hereditary peers who sit in the chamber as a birth right. Where the title as a life peer stays with the individual, hereditary peerages most commonly descend down the male line of succession without merit considerations.

Operationally speaking, the House of Lords can only propose amendments to draft proposals for laws and exercise the power of delay. It cannot block a law that the House of Commons wants to pass. As the House of Commons has democratic legitimacy, the House of Lords can only delay a law for a maximum period of one year – and not at all for any law that was promised in a government’s election manifesto.

The long road to reform

Labour’s plans form part of a long line of proposals on House of Lords reform. Tony Blair initially proposed the removal of hereditary peers from the Lords in 1997. A law passed in 1999 significantly reduced their number, but it did allow up to 92 to remain for what was envisaged to be an interim period. That interim period continues to this day, with 91 of the 92 places currently filled.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government also passed a law allowing members of the House of Lords to retire or resign permanently – actions that were both previously constitutionally impossible.

Labour’s new proposals are a far cry from what the Brown commission had wanted. Its idea was to replace the appointed chamber with an elected second chamber that would represent the UK’s “regions and nations”

Senior figures within Labour have signalled since March that these proposals are “not yet ready”. The manifesto would appear to confirm fears that the party is not committed to abolishing the Lords, even if it is taking the overdue step of dealing with the remaining hereditary peers and introducing a compulsory retirement age.

The manifesto also leaves a question over what will happen to the 26 Church of England archbishops and bishops who sit as lord spirituals, with automatic rights established by ancient usage and statute.

So, if elected, Labour will continue to discuss more significant reforms to the Lords – but without as much immediate radical change as some had envisaged.

This article was first published on The Conversation
The Conversation


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Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
1 month ago

The trouble is many of these people know each other and look after each other. In the Commons peerage is still used as a carrot to get MPs on board. The House of Lords definitely needs to become an elected body but the House of Commons needs certain reform too. Neither looks likely to happen under the incoming Labour Government. It’s another example of the general feeling that Labour have no real ambitions and much of the status quo will remain. Westminster set in it’s ways.

Matt Evans
Matt Evans
1 month ago

Given its role I don’t think it should be fully elected otherwise you get the situation you get in America where two politicised groups try to nullify each other.

That role is about scrutinising proposed laws and needs to be full of people who have experience in implementing those laws or are representative of the people affected by those laws. Lawyers, accountants, teachers, small business owners, charities, farmers, scientists, ex-civil servants, ex-military, people who’ve experienced the different sides of the justice system, people involved in sports, etc.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Evans

Labour will continue to discuss more significant reforms to the Lords. Well, thank you Labour! I think its time Welsh voters had a say. There is a thing called a Constitutional Convention. Which represents the people. And decides what the system will be. Because the existing MPs/MSs shouldn’t, obviously. Because turkeys won’t vote for what might be Xmas. Especially like now, when the people are unhappy, but the MPs/MSs seem quite happy, and want more of the same in Wales!.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Evans

Matt you have to figure why 50 US State + Congress work with 2 houses, also much of the civilised world. They are aiming at better legislation. One house ruling is not good. Look at the UK for heaven’s sake. The rest of the world is out of step with us? Completely agree that we need better MPs/MSs. Why don’t you stand? You seem an OK Welshman.

Matt Evans
Matt Evans
1 month ago

In the US senate and House you’ve got the same politicians for the same parties voting along party lines. You either control both and get everything through or you control one and barely get anything through. Look at the Police commissioners, they weren’t voted through on policy they were voted in through party and do we want that for our second chamber? A second chamber needs to be full of people competent to do the job and well add robustness to our law making, not a bunch of lying braggarts, good with PR and flush with donor money. I would… Read more »

Howie
Howie
1 month ago

One pathway in House of Commons that seems to be over represented is legal background where just under 20% of MP’s in recent commons cohort are from that background, if this transfers to a revised HoL then it may skew and reduce the life experiences that some commentators say will be required of HoL members, to make it a true revising, checks and balances.

David
David
1 month ago

No mention about the hereditary monarchy!

Mawkernewek
1 month ago

The mandatory retirement age seems to be a way to clear away old cronies to make room to appoint new ones. This would apply at the end of the parliament in which the said peer’s 80th birthday occurs.
Far from planning to abolish the Lords in favour of an elected second chamber it sounds more like they are planning it to be much as it is for many years to come.

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