On Tuesday YouGov published a roundabout set of polls concerning the public attitude towards the House of Lords under the heading ‘Most people want fewer politicians in the House of Lords‘. The article is a general reiteration of opprobrium towards the more odious lords and ladies – the polling taking place roughly a month after the Lord Sewel scandal – but it also shows that fewer celebrities are wanted as well as politicians.
The House of Lords is now the second largest parliamentary chamber in the world (behind the Chinese People’s Congress) after a recent round of packing by the Government. Although the public are fed up with celebrity peers and asked for more academics and servicemen/women particularly, when asked to nominate hypothetical peers those who had an answer (over 50% did not) leaned towards the famous, the outspoken or simply the loudest. Russell Brand; Boris Johnson; Farage and Clarkson; people who spend their time straddling the dead donkey of common sense all capture the imagination.
YouGov also reported that 63% of those surveyed wanted a mostly or entirely elected second chamber. Yet these results show the problem with that which is increasingly hawked by online media and on the streets. If we changed to an elected lords too hastily, then it would go quickly to the highest bidder, crossbenchers would disappear and the house become a bland copy of the commons or, perhaps worse, a copy of the European Parliament after an election ignored by most voters. This is not to say that the Commons is not deserved of PR or UKIP more MPs but we must not take away the Lords ability to argue for itself.
No one who has been busy repudiating the Lords has suggested properly if an elected house might be able to veto or amend bills; would a peer be give a constituency; how large might that constituency be? The Lords has the power to send bills back to the common. It is a relatively meek second chamber so no one can complain of it being too intrusive. However it also has served an important purpose in the past, and that is to scrutinise the bills that come up from the Commons – bills that often belonging to an extremely powerful executive, who is only responsible to members whom are often of his/her own party. There is no judiciary to which to answer. The only judges involved are often retired and sitting in the Lords. One example is Lord Hoffmann (now Baron) who dissented against the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act, which aimed to make provisions for the detainment without charge of terrorist suspects and was named afterwards by Professor Adam Tomkins (University of Glasgow) as “the most draconian legislation Parliament has ever passed during peacetime”.
In 2005 the (still but admittedly less shameful) Prevention of Terrorism Act pushed through control orders and surrendered the right to trial in this country. It was able to avoid the Human Rights Act and European Court because of an exemption if the sovereignty of a nation is judged to be at threat. Yet, briefly, the distinct and noble words of Lord Hoffmann brought attention to this issue in a manner sometimes hard to achieve in the Commons. They are as followed.
This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life. I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation. Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive Al-Qaeda. The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime as it was, threatened the life of their nation. Their legendary pride would not allow it. Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community.
This is very true. And we must ask ourselves who would the people like Lord Hoffmann, the judges and QCs that sit in the Lords should all their seats be put up for grabs. What’s more, while defeat came on that occasion, it was in the Lords that Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties) received its most effective support for its case against the Special Immigrations Appeal Commission and where the re-introduction of the Snoopers Charter is likely to be given a stern review – indicated by the failure of Lords Carlile, Blair, West and King to graft it onto this year’s Counter Terrorism and Securities Act.
As with the Data and Communications Act, the second chamber has proved tricky for Governments but ultimately surmountable. Yet the House of Lords gives the country a chance to look at something again and think twice – this was exactly what happened with the 2008 Counter-Terrorism Act, where the plan to extend ‘pre-charge’ detention was removed – and when a decision has been made in anger, that time to reflect is invaluable.