Geoffrey Howe

Don’t vote for us

Geoffrey Howe argues against the introduction of an elected element into the House of Lords

Text settings

Where next for the House of Lords? The debate has moved on a long way since that question raced up the agenda, after Labour's landslide victory in 1997.

It was possible then for sensible people to regard the Lords as an archaic anomaly with no practical role and even less claim to legitimacy. There was, at that time, more than one reason for taking that view.

First, the fact that a clear majority of the House (the hereditaries, 750 out of 1,270) were there only because of an accident of birth – scant justification for political power in a modern democracy. Second, because one party, the Conservatives, had a large and permanent majority in the House (200 more than Lab and Lib combined). And finally, not least because of those two features, the Lords seldom found the confidence to challenge the Commons on any important issue. In short, the Lords was perceived as ineffective as well as illegitimate.

All this has now changed. Ninety per cent of the hereditary peers were removed in 1999. The disappearance of the rest is widely regarded as only a matter of time. The Conservative majority has gone for ever. Neither of the two major parties now has more than one third of Lords membership.

Upon that basis, and (as Meg Russell has pointed out in a perceptive article in this summer's Political Quarterly) much more quickly than might have been expected, a remarkable consensus has developed about the future political composition of the House of Lords. All three parties have agreed explicitly that, in the words of the present government's 2001 White Paper, 'The House should not be dominated by the government of the day or by any other political party.'

So decisions of the House now very largely depend upon the votes of Liberal Democrat, 'crossbench' and other independent peers, who between them account for no fewer than two fifths of the present membership. Take careful note of those important words 'very largely'.

They signal the fact that even the votes of party members cannot, in the Lords, be taken for granted. Lords are significantly more likely than MPs to vote independently of their party line. There are two reasons for this. The first is that peers are not elected. So, by voting against their party, they do not put their own seats at risk. The second is the fact that the government's survival is not itself threatened by a defeat in the Lords. That does not rank as a vote of no confidence.

The dramatic change in composition since 1997 has greatly increased the practical, day-to-day confidence of the Lords. 'Ministers', proclaimed the Independent the other day, 'have failed to intimidate Parliament.' The paper was rightly applauding the repulse of David Blunkett's attack upon the jury system.

But which House was being applauded? The record speaks for itself. In the five sessions between 1997 and 2001 there were 1,640 divisions in the House of Commons, without a single government defeat. In the same period in the House of Lords there were 639 whipped divisions, of which the government lost no fewer than 164 (25 per cent).

This certainly doesn't look like the 'wholly appointed House of Cronies' that Mr Blair is said to have wished for – sometimes even to have achieved. On the contrary. A large majority of the present Lords were there before he arrived in Downing Street. Many are men and women of notable distinction, experience or expertise – of a diversity unparalleled in any other legislature in the world. The risk of any future 'cronyism', however numerically insignificant, can be completely eliminated if the government now invites Parliament to replace the ill-starred Stevenson Commission with the statutorily independent Appointments Commission, most recently recommended by the joint committee of both Houses.

Even now, on each of the occasions when the government has been defeated in the Lords, the Commons (and thus the government) has been obliged to reconsider, and often to withdraw or amend, over-hasty or misguided propositions. The House of Lords has thus been fulfilling exactly the proper role and function of second chambers in many other parliaments around the world.

So on this issue, too, there is now a notable consensus among the various recent reports on Lords reform – the Royal Commission report, the 2001 White Paper and the reports both of the Commons and of the Lords