Summary of Memorandum submitted to Royal Commission on Reform of the Lords

Delivered in the Phoenix Theatre, Exeter,

by Mr J.R. Lucas

The first task of the Royal Commission, in my view, is to decide what functions the House of Lords should perform. That will determine what powers it ought to have and how it should be constituted.

I think there are three functions:

  1. We want the House of Lords to be a guardian of the constitution, to protect us, if need be, from a House of Commons supporting a dictatorial government. When it is exercising this function, I speak of the House of Lords as an Upper House.

  2. We want the House of Lords to act as a revising chamber, giving to proposed legislation the attention that the House of Commons has neither the time nor the expertise to give. When it is exercising this function, I speak of the House of Lords as a Second Chamber.
  3. We want the House of Lords to be a National Forum of Debate, where difficult political and moral questions can be thoroughly discussed in an informed and non-partisan way.

The great difficulty is that in order to able to exercise the first of these functions, the Upper House needs to have very great powers, but in order to be a Second Chamber, it needs not to exercise them except on rare occasion. I attach great importance to the reformed House of Lords being an adequate Upper House. Although in this country we have not had any attempts to subvert the constitution, events in South Africa and Australia show the importance of our having effective safeguards. The essential provision in the present Parliament Act is that the House of Lords has an absolute power of veto on any bill to extend the life of a Parliament. This should be retained and strengthened. In order to avoid what happened in South Africa when the Nationalists were setting up apartheid we need it to be laid down that no bill which extends the life of Parliament or amends the Parliament Act itself can be enacted without the consent of the House of Lords.

The House of Lords needs to be different from the House of Commons. If it were elected, perhaps on a different basis, like the Senate of the United States, then it would rival the House of Commons. If this is definitely ruled out, the House of Lords must contain many members who are not elected. I favour retaining the Bishops and Law Lords, and there being some others having a seat ex officio. In many cases however, there would be difficulty in deciding exactly which positions should carry with them a seat in the House of Lords, and I think we should retain the present system of ad personam peerages, but we should distinguish those that are predominantly political, where patronage should be exercised primarily by the Prime Minister and leaders of the other political parties, from those that are conferred on the so-called great-and-good, where the selection should be assimilated to the rest of the honours system, with the Prime Minister having only a limited say.

We need to have leaders from many walks of life both to give the House of Lords the prestige it requires when, as an Upper House, it is thwarting the will of the Government and the House of Commons, and to give it the expertise it requires to scrutinise and revise legislation coming from the House of Commons. Although many members of the House of Commons are competent and hard-working, they cannot be as expert as the leaders in particular field. It is often the case that in joint committees of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, it is the Lords who provide the cutting edge. Although for political appointees, membership of the House of Lords might be a paid full-time job, it follows that for many membership of the House of Lords must be a part-time occupation. If it were full-time, most leaders would decline a peerage. It should remain a great honour, and should, apart from reimbursing expenses, be unpaid.

The House of Lords should be different from the House of Commons. Its membership will differ in consisting largely of un-elected non-politicians, but they will, like elected members of the House of Commons, be very successful people. When the House of Lords is being a forum of national debate, it would be a great advantage to hear the voices and opinions of those who are not outstandingly successful. I think that the hereditary peers, for all the criticisms that were made of them, did provide a valuable element of ordinariness. I would like to retain that, giving them the right to speak, but not to vote. Many of the criticisms made of them lack substance, but one was weighty: in spite of notable exceptions, the hereditary peers were predominantly upper class landed gentlemen, often retired officers from the armed forces. We need other voices in the House of Lords if it is to serve as a citizens' jury on a national scale. My own, slightly flippant suggestion, was to add a life peerage as part of the prize in the lottery. But I am sure that there are other ways of finding citizens who are not upper class, who are not outstandingly successful, but who would be willing on occasion to contribute to the nation's counsels.

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