The House of Lords needs reform

Imogen Birkett on why the House of Lords needs to adapt to the 21st Century

Imogen Birkett
26th October 2020
The House of Lords has again been embroiled in controversy. The UK's first ever archbishop, John Sentamu, was not automatically granted a peerage upon retirement. This move broke a precedent upheld by the last Archbishop of York, David Hope, who was received into the House of Lords after his retirement in 2005. It was made worse by the Prime Minister nominating his own brother, Jo Johnson. Whilst government sources have now stated that a peerage for Dr John Sentamu is “imminent”, the blow has reignited a debate surrounding the future of the House of Lords.

The House of Lords, the 'second chamber', does serve an important purpose. Most recently, peers defeated the government’s motion to pass the Internal Market Bill; a piece of legislation that would have broken International Law. This will put necessary pressure on the government to significantly change the bill in order to get it through the remaining stages. If the House of Lords was abolished, the extra accountability it usefully holds the House of Commons to would also be lost. There is a great cost to this - some argue that its input encourages Parliament to pass more robust laws.

The House of Lords' strength lies in its ability to carefully assess legislation passed by the Commons.

However, its critics argue that the advantages the HoL has on the UK's governance are currently outweighed by the disadvantages it brings. For the Lords to avoid being seen as an antiquated institution, drastic reform is needed.

Former Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu

The response of David Lammy, the shadow justice minister, to Dr Sentamu not being offered a peerage explains why reform still needed in the Lords. On Twitter he stated that, "No 10 broke a precedent and snubbed Britain's first black archbishop for a peerage because it says the House of Lords is too large, but it made room for Ian Botham, Claire Fox and Theresa May's husband” (though "Theresa May's husband" received a knighthood, not a peerage). Whilst the main issue here is the unjust actions of the sitting government, it also raises the issue of the unfair composition of the Lords.

There are still 92 hereditary peers in the 800 members of the Lords, allowed to have a part in determining the UK’s future for no more than their bloodline. Furthermore, though over 50% of the UK's population is female, less than a third of Lords members are women. Archbishop Sentamu is currently one of the 26 Lords Spiritual who hold a seat in the House of Lords for being Church of England bishops. This shows a huge over-representation of the Church of England at the expense of other religions - unacceptable in a country that claims to espouse religious tolerance. Other religious leaders, such as the former Chief Rabbi Johnathon Sacks, were forced to sit in the secular Lords Temporal.

The main criticism is that the HoL is profoundly undemocratic - shown most obviously through its poor representation of the UK's demographic.

Many areas where reform is needed could be greatly helped by allowing the public to have an increasing say. The current system of "appointees" clearly allows for party political corruption and favoritism. Allowing the public to be involved in electing members would alleviate this, in addition to remedying issues of under-representation.

In 2020, the first black Archbishop should not be the first Archbishop to not automatically be granted a peerage. In 2021, we can hope to see motions that aim to make the Lords more representative and democratic. If changes are not made soon, the future of the House of Lords is insecure.  

Featured Image: Christine Matthews, under Creative Commons License. Sourced:

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