The House of Lords Must Go

The behaviour of Lord Kilclooney exemplifies the problems with the dusty, unelected monolith.

This week, as you may have heard, a member of the House of Lords referred to Vice President Elect Kamala Harris as “the Indian”. Understandably, this has caused some dismay. Somewhat less understandably, it appears he will not suffer any penalty for this behaviour, in spite of the fact that he has actually done this twice before. He referred to Leo Varadkar, who was the Irish Taoiseach, as a “typical Indian”.

Kilclooney’s feeble defense in both of these cases was that he couldn’t remember how to spell their names. Either he can’t be bothered to quickly google the name of the Vice President Elect (in which case how can we expect him to properly scrutinise our laws?), or he’s lying. I’ll leave you to figure out which one of those is worse.

Inevitably, this leads me to question the system of government we have in place that allows people like this to have a major say in our laws.

It’s embarrassing to think that somebody in our legislature can make multiple statements of this nature and not be reprimanded, but what really stings is that we have absolutely no means of removing him from his rather lucrative position. If we’re going to be paying these people up to £300 a day, plus expenses, I think we probably ought to be able to dismiss them when they publicly make fools of themselves (and us).

Of course, the Prime Minister has recently found a way to make this undemocratic situation even worse, in the case of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park. Previously an MP, he was voted out in 2019, but was given a peerage so that he could continue in the Government. The people of Richmond Park tried their level best to get rid of Mr Goldsmith; the lords was used as a method for keeping him in his job.

I am not suggesting that every lord is evil. Lord Dubs always comes to mind as an example of an effective member of the House of Lords; he has leveraged the powers of the lords to sponsor legislation protecting unaccompanied refugee children, in an attempt to mitigate harmful conservative policies on immigration.

Not that his attempts were particularly successful. Because, while being incredibly undemocratic, the lords also doesn’t have all that much power to oppose a government with a majority in the commons. We really do have the worst of both worlds. The changes that Dubs made to the 2016 immigration bill, which were focused around taking in unaccompanied child refugees, have since been scrapped by the home office. What is the point of all that time and money spent debating and getting the Lords to vote in favour of changing the law, if the government can drop the policies and “go back on it’s word”, without even a vote.

Is this really the best we can do? We are an outlier (in terms of broadly democratic countries) in using such a cumbersome and undemocratic system. We’re the only nation that uses a parliamentary system where the upper house is larger than the lower one. The US, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, France, Germany and many others use elected second chambers.

If The House of Lords is supposed to represent some significant section of the public, the second chamber is seriously outdated. We still have 92 lords who inherit their titles. 26 Bishops and Archbishops still sit in the house of Lords. If it’s purpose is to provide meaningful scrutiny, and act as a check on the power of the government, then it’s clearly not functioning properly.

There are few times in recent history — with Brexit entirely changing our trading relationships and foreign policy, coupled with the giant health and economic challenge of COVID-19 — where we’ve so crucially needed a thorough and effective second chamber that is able to confidently speak for the public.

An elected second chamber would allow us to rid ourselves of the racists and political hangers-on, and replace them with professionals; heads of industry; compassionate leaders; and maybe even some ordinary people, who might properly hold this government, and all future ones, to account.