Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform Second Report

PART 2: Progress on Reform: A New Consensus

14.  We consider that, if it is the wish of the Houses, it would be possible for the Committee to contribute to the progress of the reform process by investigating and reporting on certain specific issues, which will have to be resolved as part of an overall reform. This should facilitate future decisions on these matters and it would be possible, if thought desirable, to bring into effect some specific changes on the road to overall reform. Our conclusion that further progress can be made is based on the much wider acceptance than at any previous time, of the roles, functions and powers that a reformed House should have and of the kind of qualities desirable in it. The debates in both Houses on our First Report have reinforced our view on this matter.

Roles and Conventions

15.  In our First Report we identified a number of significant roles that a reformed House does and could in future fulfil.[5] In the case of some of these roles, for example in its role in relation to the Commons, we believe that the way forward is to recognise the existing conventions that govern how the Lords conducts its business and behaves towards the Commons, and examine ways of defining them in a new constitutional settlement between the Houses. In the debate in the House of Commons, the Leader of the House rightly said that these conventions "buttress the relative status of each House".[6] The two most important conventions, both of a self-restraining nature, are the recognition on the part of the House of Lords that the Commons should eventually have its way, and its acceptance that the Government of the day is entitled to have its business considered without undue delay. We noted in our First Report that the House of Lords could depart from these conventions at any time since they have no basis in law.[7] A reformed House might look upon its relations with the Commons with a fresh, more assertive stance. We therefore consider that the manner of maintaining these conventions requires careful attention and could form one part of the continuing programme of reform.

Constitutional Long-stop

16.  A second important role, already performed by the Lords, is that of a constitutional long-stop or check on the ability of the Commons to make constitutional changes without full debate and an awareness of the consequences. This role was well understood by the Royal Commission in its report.[8] The House of Lords has accepted the Royal Commission proposal that a Constitution Committee should be established; the Committee was appointed in February 2001. The exact significance of the constitutional role of the Lords needs to be carefully assessed in the further programme of reform.


17.  Other roles which we identified in our First Report, in respect of the public on the one hand and the regions and nations of the UK on the other, are areas in which the substantial work already done by the Royal Commission needs to be carried forward. As one Member in the Lords debate put it, "this House is seen as too male, too old and too much from the south-east of England, with insufficient ethnic diversity".[9] In these areas, it is not so much a matter of consolidation of what the present House does, but of thinking afresh and in the overall context of parliamentary activity. On the one hand, there is a need to consider how the Lords can be made more legitimate, more directly representative of social groups (gender-wise, racially and in respect of religions) without significantly affecting its relations with the Commons. On the other, there is a need to work out what role a reformed House should have in relation to the nations and regions of the UK and how that might be achieved.


18.  We also identified, in our First Report, functions at present performed by the Lords which need to continue and be enhanced in a reformed House.[10] These include the overridingly important function of the House as a legislative body in which some Government business can be initiated and the task of revision taken on in a serious manner. Up to one-third of public bills are actually introduced into the Lords. Recent Governments of all political complexions would not have been able to achieve their legislative programmes without this facility. The Lords' revising role is widely acknowledged and attested to by the levels of activity in amending legislation over a long period, with well known results. We emphasised in our First Report that co-ordination of legislative loads between the Houses would be an important part of any new constitutional settlement, something already noted by the Commons Modernisation Committee.[11]


19.  Other functions of the Lords include its important scrutiny function - carried out in the House and through select committees. There are issues here, for example, to do with the effectiveness of the select committees which need to be looked at carefully so that the present, already significant, scrutiny role can be expanded and enhanced.

Judicial function

20.  The judicial function of the Lords is a uniquely important area of its own. There is still the need for a full, public discussion about whether there should be a separate Supreme Court and that might best arise from the work of an independent inquiry which can call on expert advice and evidence. We have heard nothing in the debates in both Houses to change our view that this is a separate matter that needs an inquiry of its own.[12]


21.  We did not envisage any significant change in the powers of the Lords as defined in the Parliament Acts, although we reserved our position on the matter of powers in the area of secondary legislation and we expressed concern at the use of carry-over provisions for public bills.[13]

The Five Desirable Qualities

22.  In putting forward our views on reform of the House of Lords, we identified five qualities which we consider essential to a reformed House.[14] The five qualities are tests to be applied to the composition of a House which is to perform its role effectively.

23.  The five qualities are:

·  legitimacy

·  representativeness

·  no domination by one party

·  independence

·  expertise

24.  We do not want to rehearse here in detail our discussion of these matters in our First Report but we stress that we were unanimous in agreeing to their importance. Nor has anything which has been said in the debates in both Houses seriously challenged this conclusion. Many Members emphasised the need for lack of domination by one party and worry was expressed about the degree of political patronage in the existing system of appointments. In his remarks on the second day of the debate in the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor said that reform of the Lords should produce a House which was not "a rival nor a pale imitation' of the Commons and one that is not 'dominated by the political parties either collectively or singly; that brings to its deliberations distinctive expertise and experience".[15] The five qualities we have enumerated and discussed in our First Report are designed to produce exactly that.

25.  In both Houses, the need for a strong independent element in a reformed second chamber was voiced by supporters of every position on composition.

5   House of Lords Reform: First Report, paragraphs 9 to 17. Back

6   House of Commons Official Report, 21 January 2003, column 200. Back

7   House of Lords Reform: First Report, paragraph 12. Back

8   Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords, A House for the Future (Cm 4534, January 2000) Chapter 5, Protecting the Constitution. Back

9   House of Lords Official Report, 22 January 2003, column 761. Back

10   House of Lords Reform: First Report, paragraphs 19 to 25. Back

11   Ibid. paragraph 20. Back

12   Ibid. paragraph 25. Back

13   Ibid. paragraphs 22 and 23 and 26 to 29. Back

14   Ibid. paragraphs 30 to 43. Back

15   House of Lords Official Report, 22 January 2003, column 832. Back

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