What next after Clegg's Lords-reform? An open letter to the Deputy Prime Minister

In this open letter to the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Rupert Read of the Alliance for Future Generations argues that it was the failure to articulate a revised 'mission' for the Lords, as distinct from the Commons, which led to the demise of the of the Lords bill. 

Rupert Read
6 August 2012

Dear Mr. Clegg;

I was sorry but not surprised to hear of the abandonment of your plans for Lords reform. On the one hand, an overwhelming majority of MPs supported the end: radical reform. On the other hand, it was clear (from the ‘timetabling’ vote) that they are not ready to will the means. Thus the extraordinary situation: that, while reform was overwhelmingly backed, it could not happen.

Dare I put it to you that there may be a deeper reason for this strange situation: that Lords reform, while broadly supported, has failed to evoke the enthusiasm (either in Parliament or outside it) that might have been hoped for, because there has been too much attention paid to the process of seeking to reform the Lords and too little attention paid to the actual character of (i.e. the mission of) the upper house, to what it should be for.

Given that there is now no prospect of the reforms you were promoting going through, I invite you to reconsider the question of what the upper house is for. It isn’t enough to animate MPs or citizens, I suggest, merely to propose that members of the upper house should be elected. I want to suggest to you a new role for the upper house. If you were to introduce new Lords reform legislation designed to give the upper house such a genuine purpose, then you might just succeed in getting some genuine momentum behind such proposed reforms.

I belong to the Alliance for Future Generations, a coalition of NGOs and individuals, who together argue for an increase in the attention paid to the interests of future generations. The issue of House of Lords reform presents in principle a significant opportunity for achieving such an increase, and for bringing about a strengthening of long-term thinking within government processes.

The context in which I view Lords reform, as a member of AfFG, is the basic paradox that we live in a society which has become increasingly ‘short-termist’ in its thinking and attitudes – above all, within the financial and economic system, the media, and politics – but in contrast, we also live in a society which faces very severe long-term problems, especially those concerning the environment and the limits of what the planet can sustain. Not surprisingly, these long-term problems are being inadequately addressed because of a mismatch of timescales between these problems and the ways in which finance, journalism, and the political process operate.

This is in addition to the very obvious point that members of future generations do not yet exist, and therefore cannot make their interests felt through mechanisms such as elections or the market economy.  They are not just underrepresented, but simply unrepresented.  And yet (provided there is not total catastrophe for the human race in the near future) they actually constitute a majority, when considered over time. There will be more members of future generations than there are members of current generations.

This is particularly a question for House of Lords reform, because the Upper House has traditionally always tended to have a longer-term perspective than the Commons.  Although this has often been largely a backward-looking perspective, nevertheless there is a tradition here in the Lords which could be developed in a more forward-looking direction, and which makes the Upper House an appropriate location for the strengthening of long-termism in the political process.

Here is my proposal: The House of Commons is elected, obviously, by the adult citizenry of the day, and its focus tends to be on their interests and needs. What if the upper house were specifically tasked with representing and protecting the needs of future generations?

There are various ways in which this suggestion might be realised. The upper house could be elected as proposed in your current legislation; or it could be selected the Athenian way, by ‘sortition’, as juries are. It could be given the special responsibility corporately to seek to represent and take care of future generations (in which case this responsibility should be incorporated into the oath of office); or this responsibility could be specially assigned to a sub-portion of its membership (as in the proposal made by one of our number, here).

We leave these details (though of course they are in the end far more than that) up to you. What we commend to you is the broad principle, writ large in the ‘New Horizons’ speech you made two years ago now, and re-affirmed in your speeches in the run up to and at Rio-plus-20, about our common responsibility to the future. If an agenda for Lords reform were re-oriented around how together we can make the upper house the chamber that seeks to give voice to the voiceless and voteless, then perhaps the enthusiasm that will be needed if radical Lords reform is ever to take place, both from MPs and from the broader public, may at last be forthcoming. For who can resist the thought that our democracy, at present, is failing to take adequate care of the future; and who could reasonably object to doing what is necessary to change that … and thus to give future generations, at last, the protection that they so clearly need and that civilisation itself demands?

Examples of the sorts of issues which crucially affect the lives of future generations, and which could and should be addressed by a reformed Upper House, include –

  • The long-term implications of technological innovation.
  • The growth in national and world population and consumption of resources, considered in relation to environmental limits such as the total quantity of land, water supply, and the capacity of the atmosphere.
  • The discount rates used in the Treasury Green Book, Department for Transport assessment of options, and elsewhere in government (and their implications).
  • Questions of extinction and conservation in the natural environment.
  • Long-run shifts in the structure of the global economy.

I accept that the current functions of the House of Lords should remain. However, what I am proposing is an additional function:

To investigate, represent, and safeguard the interests of members of future generations. This will not in the least affect the absolute supremacy of the Commons to do with all matters that do not significantly or in any reasonably-foreseeable way affect the interests of future people.

  • There should additionally be provision in the Bill for the Lords to require further consideration by the Commons on matters affecting the interests of future generations (See point 4 below).

As mentioned above, one possible way forward for the incorporation of a special responsibility toward future generations in the upper house would for this responsibility to be assigned most explicitly to some sub-section of the membership of the house. If that were to be the route that the Government decided to choose, then I would make the following recommendations for possible consideration:

1.  The House of Lords should establish a Committee for Future Generations to enable it to effectively carry out the proposed additional part of its remit.  Lords select committees do not follow the structure of Whitehall departments in the way that most House of Commons select committees do, and so there appears to be nothing to prevent such a committee from being set up (See also point 5, below).

2.  The membership of this committee, in a reformed upper House, should consist, I suggest, of 12 members appointed with this specific remit, together with an additional 6 members chosen by the House as a whole.

3.  This committee would have a duty to examine any relevant issues affecting the interests of future generations, including any relevant provisions in proposed legislation affecting those interests.

4.  The committee would have the powers of a select committee to conduct inquiries, call witnesses, and publish reports, but should additionally have the power to refer back to either or both Houses of Parliament any provisions in current proposed legislation which they believed to be contrary to interests of future generations.  The House to which the relevant clauses were referred back would then be required to consider (or reconsider) the matter, and to publish a detailed response to the arguments and recommendations put forward by the Committee for Future Generations.

5.  Although the Committee would most appropriately begin to use these powers at the same time as the election/creation of a reformed upper House, it would also be desirable before that, for a transitional period, for an initial committee with this basic remit to operate purely in an advisory capacity, advising the House of Lords.  I recommend the establishment of such a ‘first phase’ Committee for Future Generations as soon as possible.


Dr. Rupert Read, Chair of Green House; and Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia.

As mentioned above, I am also a member of the Alliance for Future Generations: 

(This letter is backed by some other members of the Alliance such as Matt Wootton and Chit Chong, but does not of course commit all members of the Alliance to agreeing with the letter’s contents.)

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