This article was originally published on BrexitCentral.
Few are really sure what the House of Lords is actually for nowadays. Public understanding of the institution is at a worrying low, and as 14 anti-Government amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill were passed over the past few weeks, it begs the question: what is the point of the House of Lords?
The debacle over Brexit highlights multiple incongruent aspects of the Upper House, not least the over-representation of the Liberal Democrats there (98 peers to 12 MPs); the astounding number of retired politicians; and the massive bill left for the taxpayers to pick up. The recent BBC Meet the Lordsdocumentary flippantly described the place as “the world’s best retirement home”, as members get to claim up to £300 a day in tax-free expenses without any accountability from the electorate, or any compulsion to participate in votes. On top of this, multiple Lords who are ex-MEPs or ex-Commissioners receive plush pensions from Brussels or have investments in pro-EU companies, casting serious doubts as to where their loyalties lie.
The whole institution smacks of the smug elitism 17.4 million Britons proudly voted against in the EU referendum. People are, rightly, tired of being dictated to by distant nobility. Which leads us to the irony in all this: the more the Lords attempt to thwart democratic decisions, the more calls for reform or abolition of the whole House will come pouring in. A petition to give the electorate a referendum on the future status of the House of Lords has already been pushed by several Brexit groups and politicians. It has already surpassed 160,000 signatures, ensuring Parliament will debate it on 18th June. Whether they like it or not, referendums now play a significant part in our constitution, and the Lords must adapt to this new form of democratic accountability, even if their EU pensions are on the line.
The House of Lords plays an important role in our legislative process and has done so for centuries. To simply rid ourselves of this tradition because of these anti-Brexit votes might be rash, but the public are getting increasingly angry over their intransigence. Two years ago, the public voted for parliamentary sovereignty over control from the EU, and without question this must also extend to the Upper Chamber. This has been an extraordinary few weeks for British democracy. Unelected and unaccountable Lords have voted for amendments which seek to fundamentally undermine or reverse the Government’s position on Brexit, the ruling Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments and the result of the EU referendum.
Reporting on these defeats in the House of Lords, the Daily Mail’s summaries are noticeable for the repeated use of “former minister” when describing various players in the Lords’ debates. This just about sums up the situation in the Lords: has-been politicians bickering over legislation which is supported by an electorate they no longer recognise. There may be a valid constitutional reason to have an second chamber, but if so, it must be populated by more wholly independent experts.
Constitutionally, the Upper House is designed to be significantly less partisan and cynically political than the Commons; yet, as research by the Electoral Reform Society has shown, the independent Crossbench Lords vote decisively less than their party political colleagues. This illustrates the reality of being a Lord nowadays! A peerage is a political prize, a gracious retirement offer, rather than a reward for entrepreneurship, innovation or expertise.
The prize is a cushy one as well. It is a slap in the face for the taxpayer to hear that £21 million a year is spent on Lords who do not respect the democratic mandate of the 2016 referendum, as well as the 2017 General Election, where Leaving the Customs Union and Single Market were voted for by a clear majority.
As the Upper Chamber concluded the Report Stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill earlier this week, it voted four times against the Brexit majority. In defiance of both Labour and Conservative manifestos, peers voted to try and keep the UK in the European Economic Area (EEA), which would emasculate us to the point of having to continue to abide by the laws of the EU and rulings of the European Court of Justice, as well as the regulations of the Single Market – without having a say in any. More worrying still is the amendment which would effectively grant either House veto power over our 31st March 2019 exit date. This will create legal confusion and disappoint the millions of Brexiteers throughout the country already planning their Brexit Day celebrations.
With these amendments – and those of the previous weeks – the Lords are usurping legislative power, going above and beyond the long-standing convention of merely revising bills drawn up by the people’s representatives in the Commons. If Theresa May’s Government failed on Brexit, a replacement Prime Minister would be fielded in. If the Lords fail on Brexit, there is no replacement, only abolition – or handcuffs so tight that their role will be diminished to the point of irrelevance.
If these Europhile Lords want to keep their cosy expenses they must Get Britain Out of the EU and ensure Brexit is not a half-hearted affair. If they can’t, there can be no doubt – the House of Lords must go.
Stephen Mitchell is a Research Executive for cross-party, grassroots campaign Get Britain Out