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27th February 2012

Nick Clegg is right – we need a new look House of Lords

Reform is essential if we are to restore the legitimacy of the upper chamber, Paul Adair explains

Having been a cornerstone of Liberal Democrat policy for some time now, it seems very likely that Nick Clegg will succeed with his plans to dramatically modify the composition of the House of Lords, ushering in a new – and seemingly more democratic – era for British politics. However, recent events suggest that the apparently urgent need for reform to our upper chamber is less clear cut than previously thought.

In the past few months, the unelected members of the Lords have been doing at least as good a job of expressing the will of the British people as ours MPs have. Spurred on by a substantial Twitter campaign, it was the House of Lords which voted against seven different parts of the government’s bill to reform the welfare system, before subsequently voting down the Coalition’s controversial NHS reorganisation bill in its entirety. Add to these defeats the somewhat unlikely passage of the Legal Aid bill, and it is clear that the Lords is acting as a quasi-independent check House of Commons as opposed to merely providing the formality of a rubber stamp.

Yet not all of their collective decisions have been consistent with public opinion. Components of the welfare bill have been defeated numerous times in the Lords, despite their relative popularity with the public at large; a poll for The Sun showed that over 70 per cent of the public support the government’s plans in this area. Instead, it is the cuts to legal aid and the reorganisation of the NHS which have seen the Lords on the right side of popular opinion. A recent YouGov poll showed that a mere 18 per cent of voters support the proposed changes, with almost every major medical organisation – including the influential Royal College of Surgeons – standing firmly in opposition.

Unfortunately, the upper chamber’s admirable opposition to a government determined to railroad its programme through Parliament is virtually meaningless. The government was able to the defeated parts of the welfare bill back to the Lords within a week, preventing any further scrutiny by attaching a finance label to the bill. If the government is truly determined to push through its NHS reforms, it will do so easily. The House of Lords must be reformed – not only because its members have no public mandate, and therefore negligible legitimacy, but more pertinently because they can only provide minimal resistance to the government for that very reason. Only reform will enable the Lords to exercise a clearly defined set of powers, providing them with genuinely democratic legitimacy to fully exercise said powers.

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