Medalling in Lords reform

My August 2012 Progress blog: reforming Lords structures without reviewing function is wrong way round – and proposals risk losing the valuable contribution third sector leaders make to the Lords.


House of Lords

It’s not just ‘big society’ advocates that are bigging up volunteering: the whole Olympic experience has put what we do for each other – not just in sport – at the heart of policymaking for some time to come. As the Lords reform marathon stumbles to an early finish who has spotted that volunteering and the future of the composition of any second chamber are linked?

Taking part in Julia Neuberger’s Commission on the Future of Volunteering I learned that peers are a major repository of experience, insight and wisdom on matters charitable and voluntary. Charity chief executives, experts in cancer, aid, mental health and addiction all sit on the red benches today. In a very brief, cross-party straw poll of them I found no enthusiasm for the failed reform proposals.

By its nature experience built up in a profession leads to recognition later in life. Joel Joffe, Nelson Mandela’s former lawyer, became a Labour peer at 68 while chair of Oxfam. Brian Rix (elevated at 64) brought experience of mental health issues first to Mencap and then to the legislature as an independent crossbencher. Few people take up elected politics at that age.

As a crossbench radical and at only 50 Victor Adebowale, chief executive of Turning Point, would never be happy with party discipline. The odds would be stacked against any independent under a list system, even if they wanted to stand for election. He resents the fact that in the last Queen’s speech debate in the Lords, ‘two days were given to Lords reform and a few hours to a debate on home affairs, the economy, poverty, sport and entertainment, social care and health’.

Delyth Morgan, also 50, might well have been a Labour candidate in the past. She left Breakthrough Breast Cancer in 2004 to become a Labour peer and a respected children’s minister. But in 2011 she returned full time to the voluntary sector, leaving both the front bench and her party affiliation behind her.

‘An elected house would produce members aligned to the main political parties and that would lead to potential conflicts of interest,’ she says, stressing that charities must be party neutral. ‘Charity professionals have incredible expertise and insight and whatever system we have needs to accommodate people from this sector’. Direct election, she strongly implies, would not.

Jill Pitkeathley, a founding member of ACEVO and formerly of a carers’ charity, supported having 20 per cent appointed peers to retain opportunities for the sector – in theory. ‘But the bill is a dog’s breakfast,’ she says, and wouldn’t have voted for it. Crossbencher Sally Greengross (formerly of Age Concern) is more sceptical: ‘The 20 per cent appointed could … not in any way replicate the present position of the third sector.’

Opposition to direct elections is not an argument for status quo. As Liberal Democrat Lord Andrew Phillips, founder of the Citizenship Foundation, told his former party leader ‘I want heavy reform of this place but not direct election’ (Lords Hansard, 14 May 2012).

Many of these peers believe that reform is happening the wrong way round. Greengross says, ‘We need to think more about what the Lords does and should do before we look at structure.’ In the short term Lord Steel’s modest bill is seen as a way forward.

Peers generally are more likely than MPs to be charity trustees. A way must be found to retain, post-reform, the high level of charitable and voluntary sector expertise that the second chamber currently enjoys. The next Olympics is only four years away – will we win gold for democracy?


Tom Levitt is former MP for High Peak. He tweets @sector4focus