Westminster Rifles

In the week when one of the most important and contentious pieces of legislation this government is likely to table was passed the news that, despite the 21st century being over a decade old, there is a shooting range in the House of Lords was swept away on the currents of the news. Why such a facility exists is a highly pertinent question. Should the members of the Houses of Parliament Sport and Social club really be able to pop downstairs for a quick bit of target shooting between votes? Perhaps, if the honourable member in question has a choice of targets, it functions as a mechanism to relieve stress. The image of Tories shooting at targets in the likeliness of their least favorable coalition partner or a palsied old peer taking aim at a mocked up prole is, in its own way, mildly amusing.

A Lord shooting (from Punch, 1906)

While the question of why the House of Lords runs a shooting gallery, especially considering the percentage of Peers who have their own country estates, is a pressing one there is a more relevant enquiringly to be made. What should we do with the House of Lords?

The Lords is a traditional institution and this seems to safeguard it from criticism. Beneath a thin varnish of pomp it is a body of aging politicians that no one has elected to this peculiarly elevated role, indeed ninety two of the honourable house sit their purely by right of birth. There are also the twenty six ‘Lords Spiritual’, the bishops of the Church of England who are given a seat in the upper chamber of British politics. Was the Church of England not so rabidly protected by the state then the reserving of seats for a group of white males of conservative bent would be deemed highly irregular. Given that the House of Lords has the power to introduce and attempt to amend bills, is considered a ‘constitutional safeguard’ that can challenge the will of Parliament and until recently was the British equivalent of a Supreme Court it is not unreasonable to expect it to be a more representative body.

At the very least the absurdity of hereditary peerages should be abolished. Centuries of absolute monarchy and, after that was done with, the monopoly of the nobility over political power should have taught us that  good breeding is no passport to intelligence, tact, empathy or any other quality expected of the men and women in such positions of influence. By all means let them keep their titles and land but keep them well away from the red leather benches of the upper chamber. Similarly in a country that the 2011 census showed has becoming less and less religious it is time we also thought about why we need bishops voting on our laws. The Marriage Act debate showed that the right flank of the Tory party is more than capable of making enough noise about Christianity when it suits them without the help of the mitered ones in the House of Lords.

Defenders of the status quo argue that changes to the House of Lords, particularly the idea of electing some or all of its members, would cripple the independence from party politics that is key to its constitutional role. This ignores the fact that the House of Lords is currently in no meaningful way independent from parliament. The committee that appoints would be Lords contains members that represent all three major political parties and as the cash for honours scandal suggested, the government of the day has considerably influence over who enters the house when a vacancy arises. The myth of impartiality is then further challenges on viewing the membership of the House of Lord, littered with ex-ministered, which is dominated by representatives of the major British political parties. The Lord’s may be free from the influence of constituents but it is not unshackled from the party political process. Electing member of the House would serve to make them more accountable and elevate the role of a Lord to something more than semi-antiquated obscurity.

Not that this will happen soon. Lords reform became another in a long line of political footballs (a phenomenon I have touched up previously, see ‘When is a U turn…‘) at the end of last year before being voted down by the more conservative wing of Parliament. Had a bill made it through the House of Commons it would still have had to be voted on by the very institution it was seeking to reform. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the House of Lords, the ability to influence its own regulation.

I am not against the existence of a second chamber, indeed if Britain had a dynamic upper house it would be a very good thing. As it is the House of Lords wields too much power for too little accountability and until that changes it will be a laughable shadow of what it could and should be.

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