How many lords do you need to make law?
And what sort of people should they be?
This is something that has been debated for as long as I can remember. As legislative assemblies go, the House of Lords is only exceeded in size by the Chinese People’s Congress – 2980 – but they are a nation of over a billion. The only thing everyone agrees on is that the present number of 792 is too big. There was cross-party agreement that we needed fewer peers – until last weekend when it became known that the Prime Minister is about to add a further 36 and put the total number over 800. There are 650 MPs.
Why does this matter? It matters in part because it costs a lot of money to run something as big as this, and money is going to be very tight following coronavirus and all the borrowing we have been doing. The possibility of wasted resources grows as the numbers grow. In 2016-17, 115 peers never spoke at all but still managed to claim the daily allowance of £300 and also notched up a bill of £1.3m in expenses. We need to curb this not add to it.
It matters too because we want the Lords to be a group of people doing the job of scrutinising bills and making sensible amendments. The police need laws that are not full of ambiguities and work on the ground. We need proper scrutiny by people who are there to do a job.
Assuming we don’t want a second chamber of more elected politicians, potentially a rival to the Commons, my 5 step solution would be this:
5 Steps to a Reformed House of Lords
Step 1. Distinguish between people we want to honour and people we want to serve as lawmakers. The former would receive their peerage but not sit in the House of Lords.
Step 2. End any hereditary entitlement to be in the Lords.
Step 3. Reduce the law making peers to a workable number. The Lord Speaker’s Committee proposed 600 a few years ago. I think this is unnecessarily large and I would reduce to 300, but whatever the number, it needs to be able to function effectively.
Step 4. Make this 300 a mix of politicians – say 150 – chosen by the parties as happens now (a mix of former MPs or former local council leaders, for example), and the other 150 chosen by a Speaker’s Committee to bring in something of that diversity of distinguished and independent-minded people, crossbenchers, whose expert views contribute to national debates, as happens now when the House is deliberating at its best. A greatly reduced number of bishops/religious leaders, say 6, reflecting religious diversity, could be part of this.
Step 5. I would not necessarily set a limit to how long people could stay as members, but leave it to individual judgement as to when they should retire; but clearly there could be limits of say 15 or 20 years.
Above all, we want a House of Lords to consist of people who are open-minded, debating freely and with something to contribute.
Emerging anti-social behaviours
The ending of restrictions has seen the appearance or re-appearance of a certain type of anti-social behaviour (ASB): boy racers. They have been gathering in large numbers in places such as the Dearne Valley Parkway and Cortonwood, Barnsley and Rotherham Districts, and Lakeside and the Vue car park in Doncaster. They rev their engines, perform screeching handbrake turns, race side by side – and generally cause noise and mayhem. It is as if they have been locked in a pressure cooker and the lid is blowing off.
I have met (remotely) with MPs John Healey and Stephanie Peacock, the Mayor of Doncaster, local councillors, local authority officers and the police to discuss ways forward, and the police have set up a Gold group to co-ordinate action.
The real world
Meanwhile, the police prepare for a second wave or possible spikes in the coronavirus as it becomes clear that we are far from on top of Covid19. We have seen since Leicester was suddenly locked down, and then Greater Manchester and parts of West Yorkshire, how decisions can be taken at the centre with little or no warning. There seems to be some mismatch between national statistics and local ones, such that local Public Health officials can be taken by surprise as much as the general population.
But each new set of restrictions puts the police increasingly at the centre if the guidance is confusing or people (or a community) feel they are not fair and begin to resist the measures. And we need to bear in mind that over the coming months and years there will be increasing numbers of relatively inexperienced officers on the streets trying to enforce the law in this ever-changing landscape. With large-scale unemployment among the young now in prospect, I fear that we may be facing a very bumpy period indeed.
Brexit – getting oven ready
We have between now and December to put in place alternatives to all the protocols and agreements around data sharing and the handling of criminals, suspects and missing persons that came with membership of the European Union and fell out when we left in January.
These made it possible for us to send back people wanted in some other part of Europe and vice versa, and to exchange information on those suspected of criminal or terrorist activities, missing people and so on. Whatever replaces all of these might be good, but they will undoubtedly involve more bureaucracy and form-filling. And we all know what can so easily happen when that is the case.
I hope you are staying safe and well.