The Constitution Unit


Lords Reform and Rhetoric - Letter to the Times

29 June 2011

A letter from Meg Russell printed in today's edition of The Times (behind paywall) insists on the usage of accurate information when dealing with delicate constitutional questions such as House of Lords reform.

Lords Reform and Rhetoric

Sir, Lord Ashdown ("The Lords mustn't be an ex-MPs' retirement home", June 27) is in several respects wrong on his facts.

He claims that there are 61 elected second chambers in the world, and that in none of them the second chamber threatens the primacy of the first. There are in fact only 38 second chambers which are wholly elected, of which only 21 are elected by the people (rather than, say, by local councillors).

Many elected second chambers are in presidential systems (such as the US) where there is no concept of "primacy" for the lower house. Various others are held in check by quite limited constitutional powers. But even in these cases, friction can occur. For example in Japan, where the lower house can overrule the upper house by a two thirds majority, much instability has been caused when the government lacks an upper house majority.

Lord Ashdown is also wrong to suggest that "the first thing a new government does is to appoint enough new peers to create a majority for itself in the Lords". After 1997 Tony Blair created many peers, but it was only in 2006 that Labour became the largest party in the Lords, and the Labour government never had a Lords majority.

In debating Lords reform it is important that we do not mistake rhetoric for fact.

Dr Meg Russell
Reader in British and Comparative Politics, University College London