12 June 2024

Labour’s ageist plan for the House of Lords


It is reported that the Labour Party intends to reform the House of Lords by introducing an age cap. Under the new rule, those over 80 would be banished. As the average age of peers is 71, this would be a significant change.

Why this proposed fatwa on octogenarians? The immediate explanation would appear to be that it was a messy compromise. The idea had been to abolish the House of Lords altogether. But Keir Starmer was persuaded that would be more trouble than it is worth. It would take up a lot of legislative time. Even those sympathetic to the measure might ask if it was the wrong priority. 

But leaving it untouched would seem a bit feeble. So let’s kick out the old duffers as a compromise. It is the politician’s syllogism, identified in the BBC comedy ‘Yes, Prime Minister’. The logical fallacy that runs: ‘We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this’. 

Perhaps all of this is Joe Biden’s fault – he has been giving old people a bad name. At 81, he is putting himself forward for another four years in the White House. Yet some fear he is already rambling and befuddled.There you go’, they might conclude. An 81-year-old is too doddery to scrutinise complicated legislation in the House of Lords – or even for the more straightforward role of being leader of the free world. This critique misses the key point that not all 81-year-olds are Joe Biden. 

I wonder if the legislation might be overturned for breaching some human rights law. The Equality Act 2010 says that you must not be discriminated against because you are (or are not) a certain age or in a certain age group. I hope Starmer knows a good human rights lawyer. 

Among those who would be removed would be Lord Kinnock, aged 82, who is a predecessor of Starmer’s as Labour leader. Kinnock became leader after Labour’s defeat in the 1983 general election when he declared: ‘If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday… I warn you not to grow old’. I wonder what he makes of the proposal. 

But there are plenty of other distinguished figures whose services would be regarded as surplus to requirements. The former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen is 85. Lord Dubs is 91 and many in the Labour Party still regard his views on the asylum system worthy of note. The scientist Lord Winston is 83. Lady Hogg, a former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, is 78 – but I suppose her time would be up once the law got through. Might not her grasp of some of the unintended consequences of a legal measure be better informed than that of many who happen to be younger than her? Lord Harris of Peckham is 81. Might he not know a thing or two about business? Also of education for that matter given all the schools he has sponsored? Lord Bragg is 84 – his thoughts on the media and the arts could still be considered pertinent. 

The former Conservative leader Lord Howard is 82. When he loyally takes to the airwaves to defend the Government, I think he is sharper than most of the current bunch of cabinet ministers. When he was Home Secretary, he had considerable success in reducing the crime rate which had hitherto been inexorably rising for decades. His voice should continue to be heard.

There are plenty of others. I mean no offence to the many I have not mentioned. 

Of course, it often happens that for some period before we die we are unfit to continue working. But a practical solution to this is for peers to stop turning up. Under the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, this has even been formalised. They can declare they have retired and are then disqualified from attending the proceedings of the House and cease to receive a writ of summons. They do not lose their title – but they are not able to change their minds and return. 

I can see that the money might tempt some to keep going longer than they should. Those who clock in are paid £361 a day in attendance allowance – free of income tax. On balance, I think the standard of debate would be enhanced if those attending were motivated purely by public service. But the solution is to abolish the payment for all peers. 

It is true that the average age in the House of Commons is a couple of decades younger – 51 in the last Parliament. With all the flack they get, MPs often jump at a relatively young age and stand down – even if they are not pushed out by the electorate. But if the Lords has a different age profile than the Commons, that is a strength not a weakness. 

We are living longer and therefore are able to contribute to society for longer. Retirement has become more flexible. Medical and technological innovations make it easier for the elderly to continue to engage. So the ageism from the Labour Party is, ironically enough, rather old-fashioned. 

Experience counts. So does the candour that develops with age. Old people usually aren’t afraid to say what they think. More important than ever in this age of ‘cancel culture’, when the younger ones are worried about winning votes and career advancement. 

Progressive educationalists decry a ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ on the grounds that we can just find out whatever is relevant if we have the skill to Google whatever facts we happen to need at the time. But you need to have enough knowledge to know what to Google. The institutional knowledge, or ‘collective memory’, provided to our constitutional arrangements by older peers should not be cast aside. There might be comical aspects to some of them. But when they have gone and the laughter dies down, we may have found in our new technocratic age that we have lost something of value.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.