For those of you that haven’t been keeping up with UK politics over the last few days here’s an update on recent events. David Cameron’s announcement to cut tax credits for working families was seen as controversial for two reasons:
Firstly, Mr Cameron had definitively promised not to do so in the election campaign last year. And I know you’re probably thinking “why is it so surprising that a politician is going back on a promise that helped them get elected?” This was different. Mr Cameron completely ruled it out when put under (relatively little) pressure from Question Time host David Dimbleby.
Secondly, it is particularly poisonous for Mr Cameron, (usually a very slick operator) to propose, basically speaking, that low-income working families should get less money. And it was always going to receive public backlash, as this woman tearfully demonstrated.
Although people understand this is part of George Osborne’s (Mr Cameron’s chancellor and de facto deputy) plan to eliminate the budget deficit by imposing cuts to government spending, the latest target is unusual. Where previously he has enjoyed relative support (or at least understanding) when cutting other public services such as money to people on benefits, this is generally seen as a step too far. Where people on benefits can be painted as lazy, (which voters are told by the right wing tabloids) and spoiled by previous Labour government’s, low-income working families can not. Labour’s response was surprisingly pitiful, they abstained to vote on the bill (despite their leader Jeremy Corbyn being strongly anti-austerity) and as such it was able to pass in the House of Commons.
But this is where we come to the title of this article. Because when the bill (having been passed by the elected house) reached the second (unelected) House of Lords, it didn’t pass. In response, David Cameron announced a “rapid review” to ensure peers are in future not allowed to veto Government finance packages. To people who aren’t familiar with the House of Lords it may sound odd. Although a second house is not unusual; unelected, unaccountable peers being able to have such a large say on whether a law is passed or not is.
Before understanding how it could potentially be reformed first it is important to understand its composition at the moment. There are 783 members of the House of Lords. 670 are “life peers” who are members until death, retire or are expelled. There are 87 hereditary peers and the Church of England fills 26 seats with senior bishops. Across the house as a whole there are 591 men and 192 women. The Conservatives are the largest party with 226 peers but crucially they do not have a majority. Labour have 212 and the Liberal Democrats have 101. There are 17 peers who sit for minor parties or as independents, and 22 are listed as “unaffiliated”. There are also 179 “cross bench” peers who are in the House as experts from different fields and backgrounds.
Looking at those numbers immediately brings some thoughts to mind. Although the Conservative and Labour representation is roughly proportional to the amount of the vote they received, the same cannot be said for other parties. The Liberal Democrats, who were virtually wiped out at the last election, now hold only eight seats in the House of Commons, yet make more than an eighth of the peers. UKIP, the SNP, and the Green Party all achieved either a substantial number of votes or seats in the commons, but are not represented at all in the House of Lords. But I don’t think this will (or should) change anytime soon. Having the two houses drastically different in terms members from each party would only lead to bills bouncing back and forth between them. If one changes, the other would have to as well.
Furthermore, the mandatory appointment of 26 C of E bishops seems archaic to say the least, the 2011 census reported that only 59% of the population identified as Christian, and that the second biggest religious group was the 5% that identified as Muslim. While I myself am a strong atheist and believer in a strictly secular form of government, religion still plays an important part in many people’s lives, and it definitely needs representation. My suggestion would be that the 26 mandatory religious seats are kept, but are tied to census results. Each of the major religions (C of E, Roman Catholicism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam) has a minimum of one seat each. The remaining 20 seats would then be determined by the latest census results, and more religions could be added provided they receive suitable membership in a census. This would ensure at least a degree of religious representation at a time when it is crucial to reach out to (often disaffected) religious minorities. Women are also sorely underrepresented, and whilst I am strongly opposed to quotas, I think some action definitely needs to be taken.
It should also be noted that the rejection of the bill by the unelected house was actually more representative of public opinion than it passing in the elected one. And this is where there is a paradoxical dilemma. Because while not being elected or whipped leads to a lack of accountability, this lack of accountability means that peers have to worry less about towing the party line or pandering to voters and can really vote based on how they feel.
So whilst I think it’s likely (and perhaps a good thing) that we’re not going to see an elected second house anytime soon, perhaps we should move towards one that has some constitutional obligation to bear public opinion in mind.