Peer pressure

The House of Lords is out of date, says the coalition government, which wants to greatly reduce the number of unelected members. But those who work in education could lose an invaluable pool of expertise and legislative scrutiny if reforms go ahead, writes Richard Vaughan

Richard Vaughan

More than 100 years ago, David Lloyd George, the country's most successful Liberal politician, set in motion changes that, he hoped, would bring about the eventual reform of the House of Lords.

A century on, and his political descendants are still trying. Indeed, just last month, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg put forward his government's plans for a new-look second chamber that would bring about the changes Lloyd George advocated so long ago.

However, the House of Lords reform bill tabled by Clegg was met with jeers in the House of Commons, and caused a political backlash from a significant number of rebel Conservative MPs.

Beyond the political dogfight, there are legitimate fears that the proposed changes to the House of Lords could drastically weaken the country's law-making ability. It is even believed that should the reconfiguration of the Lords be pushed through later this year, the quality of legislation emanating from Parliament will simply be second- rate.

Put simply, although Lords reform may seem inconsequential to those outside the Westminster bubble, it could significantly affect how those at the chalkface experience government. In short, ill-considered legislation equals a rough time for schools and teachers.

At least, that is the belief of Lord Puttnam (pictured below), the film producer behind the likes of Chariots of Fire and Bugsy Malone who joined the second chamber as a life peer in 1997 when Labour came to power. The former chief executive of Columbia Pictures, one of Hollywood's biggest production companies, was brought in to the Lords at a time when expertise in areas such as communication and broadcasting was scarce.

Since then, he says he has witnessed the House of Lords grow into a receptacle of knowledge and expertise in all areas, particularly education. After 15 years of sitting on the red seats and playing an important role in schools policy, including promoting the birth of the General Teaching Council, Puttnam is in favour of reform of the Lords and would welcome a smaller membership, adding that he would be ready and willing to give up his place in the second chamber.

But he warns that the proposals contained in Clegg's bill risk wiping out swathes of invaluable expertise, which could cause lasting damage to the quality of legislative work carried out in the future. Nowhere, he says, is this more true than in schools.

"The Commons already suffers from a situation where there is less and less . scrutiny of legislation," he says.

During his Lords career, Puttnam has overseen the line-by-line progress of two bills, the Office of Communications Act in 2002 and the Climate Change Act in 2008, both while his own party was in power, and he describes both as being nothing more than "rubbish" when they arrived in the second chamber.

"They had not been scrutinised and had been seen a very, very limited amount of time (by MPs)," he explains. "If great legislation was arriving (from the Commons) in the Lords then there wouldn't be any argument. The problem starts when you have less good people in the Commons doing a less good job. That is why we need the Lords to keep saving the day."

Puttnam points to last year's Education Act, which he says was "thoroughly scrutinised" by all sides of the Lords.

"(Schools minister) Lord Hill would agree that the people he was up against from all parties were pretty bloody formidable," Puttnam says. "Look at the backgrounds of the people - former education secretaries, ex- headteachers - all of whom would be gone (if reform was successful); and then look at the equivalent stage in the Commons."

Under the coalition's Lords proposals, the number of peers would be reduced from 826 to 450. About 80 per cent of members would be elected, whereas under the current system, the majority of Lords are appointed by political parties or the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission. As part of the reforms, just 90 peers would be chosen by an appointments commission as non-political members, and members would serve a non-renewable 15-year term instead of being granted a peerage for life.

Loss of experience

The reforms, however, had a less than enthusiastic political reception. Malcolm Rifkind, a Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister, claimed that the reforms would create a "sham democratic chamber, which will consist overwhelmingly of members who would rather be in this chamber".

Indeed, Lord Baker, who was education secretary under Margaret Thatcher between 1986 and 1989, and is currently driving the government's plans for University Technical Colleges, says that most of the current house would never stand to be politically elected. They are too apolitical.

"If you go towards an elected group in the House of Lords there would be a definite loss of education experience," he says. "It would mean that we would lose a host of very experienced educationalists who would not stand to be politically elected, never in a month of Sundays, and that would be an enormous loss to the second chamber."

But the Liberal Democrats have dismissed fears that the quality of legislation will suffer, with Clegg claiming that far from lowering the quality of legislation, the changes would lead to "better laws".

In the days after the general election in 2010, when the Lib Dems took to the negotiating table in a bid to thrash out the coalition agreement with their Conservative counterparts, reforming the Lords was among their top priorities. So it should come as no surprise that Lib Dem peer Baroness Walmsley, a long-standing campaigner on education issues and a former teacher, is adamant that the changes would lead to more, not less, expertise in the Lords.

"The present expertise in the Lords will not be lost under these reform proposals," she said in a carefully worded statement. "The reformed House will have 90 independent, expert appointees in a total membership of 450. The present Lords has only about 80 active, expert `crossbenchers' (neutral members) out of a total membership of 800. The influence of expertise could therefore increase, not decrease."

Independent minds

However, Walmsley misses a crucial point, or at least her advisers seem to, which is that while crossbench peers add welcome independent scrutiny, to focus only on crossbenchers ignores the great and varied expertise of the often independently minded members appointed by each political party.

Lord Lingfield, appointed as a peer last year by the Conservatives, has been involved in education for his entire working life, including being one of the driving forces behind grant-maintained schools in the 1980s, but in his own words would "never dream" of standing for a seat politically.

And yet his involvement in the scrutiny of the education bill (now the Education Act 2011) led to a crucial amendment that gives Ofqual, the exams watchdog, the power to fine an assessment body should they fail in their duty to administer national tests effectively.

Previously, education secretaries had just two options if an exam board allowed mistakes to occur in test papers: one was to write to the boards, the other was to ban them entirely. The recent amendment meant that boards could face multi-million-pound fines should they make any future mistakes.

Lingfield insists that this is just one small example of the work and expertise that is on offer in the Lords as it stands, and that could be lost under the proposed changes.

"Previously, the only powers the secretary of state had was a slap on the wrist or the nuclear option of throwing them out. It is just one instance of a useful reform started in the House of Lords which might not have been thought of in the Commons," he says.

The worry, then, is that under the proposals contained in the coalition's bill, such knowledge and proficiency in education would be dismantled and replaced by something inferior: more politicians, who will care more about scoring political points than producing good legislation for schools.

But both Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron are tied in to the Lords reforms in the coalition pact, so the proposals are unlikely to suddenly evaporate. Indeed, another bid to force them through Parliament is expected for the autumn.

The 100-year-old debate certainly doesn't appear to be going away.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

Latest stories