Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

The iconic building which hosts the House of Lords is in need of radical refurbishment.   Obviously, this is going to have serious practical consequences for managing their day to day business, and it has been proposed that the best solution would be to “decant” the peers elsewhere.  (Somehow, the use of a verb which normally crops up in the context of port in crystal vessels seems rather apt for the House of Lords as we currently know it).

It has been reported in the press that many of the peers favour relocating to Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, but Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) has expressed his support for moving the Upper Chamber to Stoke-on-Trent.   Early public reactions from peers have not been enthusiastic, and for example, former Lords Speaker Baroness Hayman described the idea as “bonkerooney”. She also voiced the view that this was a “punishment” reflecting the executive’s current displeasure with the House of Lords.

The suggestion throughout these discussions, always implicit and sometime explicit, has been that meeting in the provinces would be a form of exile. Although it is fair to say that at times there has been an element of humour about this, we cannot deny that there is undoubtedly a serious edge to the comments.  The denigration of places outside of London is troubling, given the stark social and economic inequalities within British society, and unquestionably, the perception within many communities that they were not getting a fair slice of the prosperity pie was one factor in the Brexit debates. As it is well known, there was a blatant link between levels of poverty and voting patterns, and although we are not suggesting that blaming the European Union for social inequality was a rational or constructive response, or even necessarily a conscious one in all cases,  nobody could deny the dramatic contrast in referendum results drawn on geographical lines.  We might, and indeed should, investigate and debate the reasons for it, but there is no escaping to the uncomfortable conclusion that British society is at present deeply divided, and as prevailing economic conditions worsen, this is only going to grow more acute.

On top of all of this, the House of Lords is frequently caricatured in the press and popular imagination as elitist, out of touch and divorced from the reality of life for many people.  This is not to stay that such a perception is entirely fair, as there are a significant number of peers from diverse backgrounds who are committed to social justice, regardless of their political leanings.  Yet it is also true that ninety-two hereditary peers still occupy seats in the legislature, solely by virtue of their birth, and even amongst the life peers, the majority enjoyed the advantages of an upbringing with economic comfort, educational advantage and social capital.

It is also only right to point out that some of the concerns expressed about a move to Stoke-on-Trent might be rooted in practical matters, given the distance from other state institutions and facilities based in London.   Nevertheless, using language like “bonkerooney” (even referencing Michael Gove’s previous use of the word) and “punishment” inevitably gives the impression that the House of Lords is having a collective fit of the vapours at the idea of moving to the provinces.  Also, the very fear that the practical challenges would be so immense, in and of itself suggests a degree of prejudice, given the benefits of twenty-first century technology.

It is worth noting that (aside from the Church of England bishops) none of the peers in the House of Lords have a geographical remit, and perhaps this is part of the problematic dynamic.  Whenever momentum for House of Lords reform gathers again, the possibility of some form of regional representation might be desirable, as it would help both the population outside of London to feel that the Upper Chamber had more connection with their context, and some of the representatives to attend with real connection and emotional investment in communities outside of London.  That is not to say that such connection and investment are wholly absent, but an individual feeling a bond for personal reasons is very different from a peer having a duty to advocate for a particular town or region. Arguably, the discussions over a temporary relocation for renovation have revealed a weakness in the Upper Chamber which should be addressed.


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Michael Gove suggests that House of Lords could be temporarily relocated to Stoke-on-Trent, Sky News (16/5/22)