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Press Release: Constitution Unit expert warns of Lords reform dangers

6 March 2014

The Constitution Unit's Deputy Director, Dr Meg Russell, known as one of the leading academic experts on the House of Lords, has warned of "grave dangers" to the Lords from a Private Member's Bill on reform which stands a chance of shortly becoming law. In a strongly worded intervention she has urged peers to amend the bill, if it is not to bring about "a very major change that would alter the Lords fundamentally, and in very undesirable ways". 

The bill, which was sponsored by backbench Conservative Dan Byles, completed its passage through the Commons on Friday and has arrived in the Lords, where it will be taken up by former Liberal Party leader David Steel. It is intended as a minor "housekeeping" measure, to allow peers to retire and to expel serious criminals from the Lords. But Russell has highlighted a loophole, which was also raised in Commons debates: that by allowing retiring peers to stand for the Commons the bill could inadvertently turn the Lords into a training ground for future MPs. Few current peers would take this opportunity, but it could change the type of people appointed in future, and thus fundamentally change the Lords. 

In a carefully-argued blogpost just published, Russell sets out various scenarios in terms of new people who could enter the Lords - MPs who have recently lost their seats, other failed parliamentary candidates, and ambitious youngsters - all of whom might use the chamber to build a future Commons career. Appointing such members could be attractive for party leaders, as they would be easier to control than current peers, compromising the Lords' well-known independence. As Russell argues in the blog:

"Many members would become far more preoccupied with constituency business and campaigning than with parliamentary scrutiny work; many would watch far more carefully what they said, in order to appeal to the media, local voters and their party leaders". In addition "debates would become more politicised" and there would be a serious "loss of long-term thinking", due to some members being appointed and leaving after only a few years.

Russell points out that the bill so far has had poor scrutiny: including just 38 minutes in House of Commons committee. No evidence has been taken on the possible effects. Yet the evidence - from countries such as Ireland and Canada - suggests that without safeguards, a "revolving door" syndrome can develop between two chambers, severely weakening the second chamber. Crucially, previous proposals - such as from the Royal Commission on House of Lords Reform, and even Nick Clegg's bill in 2012 - have included a "cooling off" period of several years before departing peers can stand for the Commons. But that is missing from this bill.

Meg Russell said: "While I am in favour of allowing retirement from the Lords, any gain from this bill as it currently stands will be relatively small, while its long-term consequences will be huge and negative. Opening up a direct route from Lords to Commons, which has been closed for centuries, would be a major constitutional and political change. If this is truly about 'housekeeping', then an amendment in the Lords to maintain something closer to the status quo is essential".

Notes for Editors

  • The Constitution Unit is an independent and non-partisan research centre based in the Department of Political Science at University College London.
  • Dr Meg Russell is the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and Reader in British and Comparative Politics at UCL. She is author of two books on the Lords, Reforming the House of Lords: Lessons from Overseas (Oxford University Press, 2000) and The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived (Oxford University Press, 2013). She has also acted as an adviser to the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords, the Leader of the House of Commons, and various parliamentary committees. She is available for interview: meg.russell@ucl.ac.uk
  • The House of Lords Reform (No. 2) Bill can be found here. Clause 4(5)(b) explicitly allows departing peers to run for the House of Commons.

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