Briefing for Queen’s Speech debate

House of Lords reform


The Campaign for a Democratic Upper House (CDUH) is a grouping of Labour Parliamentarians and members, formed in 2000, who support a second chamber that is wholly or largely elected. 


Summary of key points


(i)                 Labour can claim much of the credit for Lords reform. It has taken key Lords reform measures in the past (especially in 1999), and the Coalition’s Bill is based on its 2008 White Paper;


(ii)              The Campaign calls on Labour MPs to make a strong case for the principle of democratic reform - that those who make the laws should be elected by those who are subject to them - while pointing to issues that the Government needs to resolve in its Bill;  


(iii)            Arguments against an elected second chamber centre on a fear that the primacy of the House of Commons could be threatened. The majority of the Joint Committee (including the majority of MPs) rejected this, and the report shows how these concerns can be answered;  


(iv)            The so-called Alternative Report, produced by a group of whom the majority are peers, contains a number of inaccuracies, and ignores some of the main findings of the Joint Committee report (see separate briefing);


(v)               In March 2007, the previous House of Commons voted for a democratic second chamber by 337 votes to 224 (100% elected) and 305 to 267 (80% elected). On the Joint Committee, the majority of the MPs supported the key principle that “the reformed second chamber of legislature should have an electoral mandate”, with only one MP opposed (Report, Vol 1, page 150).







1.      The Queen’s Speech on 9th May 2012 included a Bill on House of Lords Reform. This follows the Report of the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill, chaired by the former Labour Leader in the Lords, Lord Richard, published on 30th April 2012. There had been calls from some Conservative backbenchers for the Government to drop the planned Bill from the Queen’s Speech.  


  1. The Campaign for a Democratic Upper House welcomed the report of the Joint Committee, and especially its endorsement of the central principle that the second chamber should have an electoral mandate. We believe it is axiomatic in a democracy that those who make the laws should be elected by those who are subject to them.


Why Labour can take much of the credit


3.      Lords reform (or, on occasions, its abolition), have been Labour objectives from the very earliest years of the Party. The Lords’ power of delay over legislation was limited from two years to one year in 1949 under Clement Attlee. Most of the hereditary peers left in 1999 under Tony Blair. The proposals in the draft Bill closely follow, and arguably were made possible by, the previous cross-party talks and the 2008 White Paper led by Jack Straw. The National Policy Forum has voted strongly for a wholly elected House.  Many CLPs and members have supported a democratic second chamber at Conference votes, in Fringe meetings, and in past consultation on the issue under the Labour Government. As recent polls have shown, an elected second chamber has wide support amongst the public.


What did the draft Bill propose?


  1. The draft Bill (May 2011) proposed that the reformed House should have 300 members (240 elected and 60 appointed Independents); plus up to 12 bishops. Elections would be proportional, with the Bill proposing the Single Transferable Vote. Elections would be at the same date as a General Election. The reformed House would have the same functions as now (ie scrutinising legislation, holding government to account, and conducting investigations). No change was proposed in its powers. The House of Commons would remain the primary chamber, assisted by differences such as elected members of the second chamber having only one term of 15 years; by the continuation of the appointed element; by the election of the second chamber in thirds every five years; and, by a different voting system. Clause 2 stated that nothing in the Bill would affect the primacy of the House of Commons, or otherwise affect powers or the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses. There would be a transitional period, of three Parliamentary cycles, during which some existing peers could remain as members.

What does the Joint Committee say?


5.      The Joint Committee endorsed most of the main features of the draft Bill, except on the issue of primacy/Clause 2, and the size of the House. It also proposed a variant of the voting system. It agreed, on a majority, that the reformed second chamber should be composed of 80% elected members and 20% appointed members. There should be 450 members, to meet the workload now performed by the House (paragraph 114). A majority agreed with the proposal for a single term, and that it should be for 15 years. The committee proposed a variant of STV used in New South Wales, which allows voting for the party, or ranking of individual candidates (paragraph 152).


6.      The committee did not consider that Clause 2 was capable in itself of preserving the primacy of the Commons. A majority considered that the remaining pillars on which Commons primacy rested were sufficient to ensure its continuation. The committee went on to recommend that, following any reform, the two Houses should establish a means to define and agree the conventions governing the relationship. They should adopt a Concordat between them, in the form of parallel, identical resolutions, prepared by a Joint Committee and adopted in each House.  Preliminary work should begin as soon as possible.  


7.      The Government should also consider proposing an improved dispute resolution procedure [eg over the stages of “ping pong” on Bills], and the Joint Committee to examine the conventions should also examine ways to resolve differences without resort the Parliament Acts. (See separate briefing on Maintaining the Primacy of the House of Commons for more details).


8.      The committee received evidence from Lord Goldsmith QC, former Attorney General, and Lord Pannick QC, that the Parliament Acts would apply to a Lords reform Bill. To ensure that the Acts continued to apply to a reformed chamber, the Bill should make statutory provision for it.


9.      The committee thought it would be inappropriate for elected members to involve themselves in personal casework, and recommended that no financial support should be made available by IPSA for such casework; or for an office in elected members’ constituencies.


10.  Of the Government’s three options for transition in its White Paper, the Committee preferred the first option (reduction by thirds of existing membership every five years from 2015). It put forward, however, a fourth option, whereby the membership would reduce in 2015 to a benchmark figure from those who had attended 66% or more of sitting days in 2011-12, with the remaining members continuing to 2025 and leaving together. Seats for transitional members would be allocated in proportion to their current membership to the parties and crossbenchers, who would choose their transitional members. 


11.  A majority of the Joint Committee recommended that a referendum should be held, in view of the significance of the constitutional change.


Why should we reform the Lords at this moment?


  1. Some people argue that nothing matters at the moment except economic recovery. It is perfectly true that the economy is the central political issue, for the Opposition as much as for the Government. It is also true that public expenditure is severely constrained. That does not, however, prevent other changes to our national life from being considered. The Government is pressing ahead with its Academy programme in schools and the creation of free schools, the expensive (and disastrous) NHS and Social Care Act, and major changes to public services generally, despite the economic situation.


  1. There is never a “right” moment to make important constitutional changes. If Labour had let public spending constraints in its first two years in office (1997-99) prevent it from making important reforms, there would have been no devolution to Scotland and Wales, Human Rights legislation, Freedom of Information Act; nor the removal of the majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords. The Attlee Government’s reduction in the delaying power of the Lords to one year from two years, in the Parliament Act 1949, was debated (1947-49) during the height of postwar austerity. While proper account has, of course, to be taken of the costs of any new measure (and the Government has yet to publish its estimates of the cost, which it must do), the present state of the economy is not in itself a sufficient reason for delay.


  1. We have reached a point where all the major political parties support reform, reflecting public opinion over a long period. The House of Commons voted in 2007, for the first time, in favour of an 80% or 100% elected second chamber. Detailed proposals in the Labour Government’s White Paper in 2008 are reflected in much of the draft Bill. Our politics have moved beyond the point where the continued presence of unelected legislators in Parliament is considered acceptable. More than a century after the Parliament Act 1911 first removed the veto power of the Lords, and well over a decade since 92 hereditary peers were allowed to remain as guarantors of further reform, the time has arrived to complete the modernisation of our constitution and conclude this piece of unfinished business, which Labour started; and would have completed had we been re-elected in 2010.



What should Labour’s approach be?


  1. The Campaign calls on the Party’s MPs to make clear their support for the principle of democratic reform, based on our 2010 Manifesto and the 2008 White Paper. Opposition MPs may wish to:


    1. Support 100% election as a preferred alternative, while recalling that Labour has also backed 80% election in the past (in its 2008 White Paper);


    1. Press Ministers to say how they will respond to the Committee’s criticisms of Clause 2 of the draft Bill, and their response to the Joint Committee’s proposal for a Concordat between the two Houses;


    1. Press the Government to publish its estimates of the projected cost of its proposals, which it has not done.


  1. Labour’s frontbench have supported a referendum on the issue. The Campaign asks Labour MPs to make clear that they will campaign for a Yes vote in any referendum, held after enactment of the Bill.


Further information


  1. Further briefings are available on the Campaign’s website on:


- maintaining the primacy of the House of Commons

- the Alternative Report

- Questions and Answers on Lords reform




Damien Welfare, Co-ordinator

Daniel Zeichner, Campaigns Officer




Telephone: 07947 616821 (Damien Welfare); 07767 253060 (Daniel Zeichner)


The Campaign is a grouping of Labour Parliamentarians and members who support a second chamber that is wholly or largely elected.