Peer pressure – what do calls for Lords reform mean for charities?

The House of Lords has been the subject of a number of recent proposals for reform, whether on scrapping hereditary peer by-elections, reducing the number of peers or even abolition. What do these calls for change mean for the way that charities seek to work with the Lords and improve policy?

Hereditary peer by-elections

Next week will see the latest election to decide who will be the next hereditary peer to sit in the House of Lords. This procedure, a legacy of the deal done to get hereditaries to approve reform of the Lords, is still in place nearly 20 years on, demonstrating very clearly that there’s no such thing as a short-term reform measure in the Lords.

On the death (or since 2014, retirement) of an existing hereditary peer, a by-election is held where the electorate is usually hereditary peers with the same party affiliation, except in the case of those who agree to serve the house as officers, who are chosen by all peers.

This slightly unusual process has provided some of parliament’s more colourful moments, such as the aspiring peer who submitted his candidate statement in the form of a poem, or the candidate who promised to avenge his ancestor’s bankruptcy.

But unsurprisingly this process is seen by some as damaging the reputation of the Lords, not least when last year seven candidates fought among three voters for the right to a seat. And with further damaging stories as a result of the new BBC documentary, Meet the Lords, charities will wonder what potential reforms could mean for their ability to influence legislation in the second chamber.

Reducing the number of peers

In particular, much recent focus has been placed on the number of peers, who as a result of prime ministers of all parties using their power to appoint to strengthen their hand in the Lords, comfortably outnumber their Commons counterparts. The Lords recently agreed that the number of peers should be reduced in a debate, leading the Lord Speaker to set up a cross-party committee on how to reduce the size of the Lords.

As with the 2014 act, which allowed peers to retire, successful Lords reform is often piecemeal and initiated by peers themselves. But a major barrier in reducing the size of the house this time is the difficulty in thinking of a solution that doesn’t involve restricting the prime minister’s power to appoint peers, which would make it difficult to secure government agreement.

A more assertive Lords?

In recent years peers have been quicker to challenge the established conventions of the house, with the Liberal Democrats in particular prepared to push the boundaries of Lords powers. This new assertiveness, combined with governments typically lacking a majority in the Lords even where one exists in the Commons, has led many charities to rightly conclude that it is the best place to seek to improve legislation.

An example of this was the 2015 row over tax credits, which saw a government statutory instrument defeated despite a long-standing convention that secondary legislation would not be blocked by the Lords.

The government’s response was to commission a report from former House of Lords leader Lord Strathclyde, who duly recommended that peers’ power to veto statutory instruments should be scrapped (PDF, 2MB). The government eventually chose not to go down this route, but the message was loud and clear – peers need to make sure they don’t overstep the mark.

The Lords seem to have been more circumspect since then, and the need to tread the right line between scrutiny and blocking the will of the elected Commons has been clearly illustrated by the passage of the EU bill to enable the government to trigger Article 50 through parliament, with Lords opposition restricted to a few key amendments. Open threats of abolition were made should the Lords have made any attempt to block the bill.

What does this mean for charities?

Few institutions have received more premature obituaries than the House of Lords, so don’t expect fundamental reform, or abolition, any time soon. But peers are undeniably under pressure, and this will continue to impact the way they exercise their powers. Charities seeking to engage with peers will need to recognise these pressures, particularly when they are asking those peers to go against public opinion or make significant changes to key government legislation.

The lack of a government majority in the Lords (and the considerable impact it has on legislation) means that it will continue to be the most likely way for charities to influence bills. Understanding the dynamics of the first Conservative government without a Lords majority, and how peers can use their influence without pushing too far against the government’s wishes, will therefore be essential.

If you want a more detailed overview of how to work effectively with the House of Lords, our new half day course on 23 June will give you the tools to work well with peers, understand the Lords’ procedures and use them to influence policy and legislation.


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Avatar photo Chris is NCVO’s public affairs manager, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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