The pros and cons of the House of Lords

Former PM Gordon Brown has suggested replacing the upper chamber with ‘an assembly of nations and regions’

House of Lords
The question of whether the House of Lords should exist in its current format is one that has been debated for decades
(Image credit: Ben Stansall/Getty Images)

A report by former PM Gordon Brown recommending the abolition of the House of Lords and other sweeping constitutional changes is under careful consideration by the Labour Party.

The leaked review, which has been seen by MPs and Labour shadow minister, suggests replacing the upper house with “an assembly of nations and regions, with a remit of safeguarding the constitution and with power to refer the government to the supreme court”, according to The Guardian, which was given access to the report.

Labour peers are being consulted on the “radical and far-reaching” proposals, which have provoked “intense internal debate”, added the paper.

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Brown also recommends “new tax powers for some devolved governments”, “powers for mayors on education, transport and research funding”, and “a crackdown on standards in central government”. The latter would involve “a jury of ordinary citizens”.

The question of whether the House of Lords should exist in its current format is one that has been discussed for decades now, with many unsure what role an unelected chamber should have in a modern democracy.

Who sits in the House of Lords?

As of September 2022, there are 248 Lords belonging to the Conservative Party, 183 “crossbench” Lords and 166 members of the Labour Party. The remaining members of the House of Lords belong to smaller political parties or are not affiliated with a political party.

High-profile appointments in recent years have included Alan Sugar and Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, who is Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon.

Members meet in Westminster and are expected to scrutinise bills approved by the House of Commons. While they cannot normally prevent laws from being passed, they can delay bills and add amendments that are then sent back for consideration in the Commons.

How much are peers paid?

Peers are not paid a salary but can claim a flat daily allowance of £162 or £323, if they attend a sitting. They can also choose not to make a claim.

One notorious anecdote reported in 2017 told of a peer who “left the taxi running” outside the chamber while he dashed in to claim his £300, according to The Telegraph.

Lady D’Souza, who stepped down as speaker of the upper chamber in 2016, told BBC documentary Meet the Lords that many of her colleagues did nothing to justify their stipend.

“There is a core of peers who work incredibly hard, who do that work, and there are, sad to say, many, many, many peers who contribute absolutely nothing but who claim the full allowance.”

Members who already receive a ministerial or office holders’ salary cannot claim the flat rate.

What’s wrong with the current system?

The UK has the world’s second largest decision-making body after China’s National People’s Congress. Campaigners such as the Electoral Reform Society argue that it is undemocratic that unelected peers should have such sway in British politics.

The current system also makes it very hard to get rid of politicians from the Cabinet. In 2019, Downing Street announced that Nicky Morgan, who didn’t contest her seat in the general election and was therefore no longer an MP, was to be made a Conservative peer in order to remain a member of Johnson’s top team. And Zac Goldsmith, who lost his Richmond seat the same year, also entered the House of Lords so that he could continue to attend Cabinet as environment minister.

Johnson’s nomination of Evgeny Lebedev for a peerage was also questioned, with Labour urging the government to release the advice given to the prime minister by security services before the Russian businessman’s elevation to the Lords.

What’s right about the House of Lords?

Amid calls for the House of Lords to become an elected chamber in 2014, Peter Oborne argued that it actually worked remarkably well, throwing out what he called “populist measures introduced by governments determined to bolster their right-wing credentials”.

Writing for The Telegraph at the time, he said an elected House of Lords would never have the will or the courage to stand up against public opinion, and would deprive the public of the judgement of “very valuable” peers, such as retired generals, trade union leaders, academics and judges.

The House of Lords has proved it is “willing to defeat ministers even on flagship and other significant pieces of legislation” in recent years, said Sonali Campion and Sean Kippin in The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit. In turn, this has led to “somewhat greater checks and balances constitutionally and a little more scrutiny in the policy-making process”, they argued.

What are the alternatives?

All the main parties have pledged to cut the number of peers, and many politicians agree that hereditary peers should be phased out.

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband previously proposed a wholly elected senate, with roughly proportionate numbers from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions, instead of MP-style constituencies.

During the coalition years, the Lib Dems put forward proposals to halve the number of members and ensure that at least 80% of peers were elected, but the plans were abandoned after an agreement with Tory opponents failed to be reached.

The Conservatives have also said in recent years that they are committed to reforming the Lords, in part to stave off the rise of Scottish nationalism. In 2019, the FT reported that the prime minister was concerned about the threat the Scottish National Party poses to the union, and was working on plans to update the House of Lords so it better reflects the union’s constituent countries.

One person – briefed about the discussions on Lords reform among Johnson’s inner circle – told the paper that the government was considering constitutional change in an attempt to “cement the union and make it more relevant for everyone”.

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