Last December, Baroness Hayman, the Lord Speaker, captured the mood around Westminster perfectly by using a simple metaphor, that the scaffolding currently up to fix the holes in the roof of Westminster Hall is a symbolisation of the fixing of British politics. A Hansard Society lecture provided a chance for the political class to lash back at the blood-baying media, offering a genuine apology for the current crisis of trust Parliament faces, and more importantly, a yearning to rebuild confidence in the institutions that govern our country. Her speech, apparently anonymously titled “Ermine, Ethics and Engagement: Evolution of the House of Lords” touched on the stuttering century of House of Lords reform proposals, the creation of the role of an independent Commissioner of Standards and the expenses scandal, which she denounced as ‘an accident waiting to happen and happen the accident did.’
The previous reform of the House of Lords, most notably the removal of hereditary peers, has caused a seismic change to the role of the Upper Chamber. It is no longer an aristocratic chamber, more a meritocratic gathering of professionals. 282 appointments to the House of Lords in the past decade, whose expertise goes beyond career politics, but as leading figures in the world of business, science and culture. A peerage is now a position of legislative authority within your chosen field, as well as contributing to wider debates, thus this role is one of responsibility.
How do we rebuild trust and confidence in the political system? It is easier in the Commons, as poorly-fairing MPs have either resigned or will be sacked in the election in the spring. The consented element to the next session of Parliament will somewhat restore public faith in the work of the Commons, but what can be done by the ‘other House’ to get a thumbs-up from the court of public opinion?
The Lords cannot reject legislation, merely postpone a bill for up to a year, and cannot even sniff at a finance bill let alone exert any legislative influence over it. When it comes to law-making, the House of Lords has no great powers of its own, and therefore, it must be asserted that the primary aim of the Lords is to hold the executive to account. Hayman proposes the greater use of select committees and Question Time to hold Secretaries of State to account, giving Lords the access to post legislative scrutiny and for members to take a greater control in the agenda of the House.
The Baroness talked of the Lords/Commons divide, that “relations between the two Houses are not an example of creative tension, but simply a failure to take a whole Parliament approach”. Addressing this issue will introduce a better understanding of each Houses’ role in providing checks and balances, promoting a peaceful Westminster, having likened the tensions to the jets and the sharks of West Side Story.
Baroness Hayman addressed the composition of the Lords. She made a point of not dismissing the idea of ‘Parliamentary peers’ who have fixed terms in accordance with ministerial duties within government. This originates from the view that Lords ought to retire if they can no longer make a decent contribution to the work of the Lords. Should life always mean life?
These policies were fair, yet by no means nothing new. Redemption will be earned over time, the wounds of British politics will heal. I want to see how we can progress the House of Lords, how reform can reignite a belief that it is even necessary. When the most political participation Joe Bloggs sees on the news is from Prime Minister’s Questions or on the doorstep of the sleepy-eyed interviewee giving an impromptu journo-session before a morning run, I hope you’ll agree it is desperately needed. The only time the Red Benches have hit the headlines of late when that TV peer Lord Sugar of the East End was ‘sworn in’. What can be done to instil a new importance in the role of our Upper Chamber?
I propose setting up a young person’s peerage: a short term for a representative voted by students from Year 7 to university, to influence the agenda and offer the opinion of young people to the House. A ‘Youth Peer’, could quash the ‘Votes at 16’ debate, and enshrine the social view that today’s young generation are political, influential and worthwhile to society. Yes, this another blatant opportunity for me to give young people a voice, and no, I don’t propose this because I am trying to find an easy way into politics.
Like many of her peers, Baroness Hayman is committed her cause: to protect the House of Lords and its important influence in the way this country is governed. She is prepared to admit that politics is drudging its way through dark times at the moment, and moreover that faith and confidence can only be restored by politicians themselves:
“We must demonstrate that self-regulation doesn’t mean no regulation, it doesn’t mean ‘soft’ regulation, and it doesn’t mean regulation solely by members for members. I believe it would be fatal to this institution if we retreated into our gilded bunker and ignored the views of those outside – even, challengingly, when we feel they are unfair – whom we serve through our work and who fund us to do so. Like it or not, the whole political class has been tried in the court of public opinion and found wanting. Regardless of our view of the role of the media in all this, we have to show that both corporately and individually we understand what has happened – that we actually ‘do get it’.”