HAS there ever been a longer or more frustrating campaign than the one to reform the House of Lords? Believe it or not, the first attempt was in 1909 and there have been various attempts since – after the First World War, and the Second, in the 1950s and 60s, in the 1990s and under the Coalition Government in 2010. All of them have come to virtually nothing, and so it still stands: one of the largest legislatures in the world and certainly one of the most preposterous.

The latest hope of reform rests with the report commissioned by the Speaker of the Lords, Lord Fowler, although there is already a feeling that the recommendations, which are far from radical anyway, will come to nothing. The SNP, which has always been a vociferous critic of the Lords, says the report is the last realistic chance of change but does not go far enough. Only complete abolition and replacement of the Lords will do, they say.

The basics of the party’s argument – that the Lords is undemocratic, expensive and does not reflect wider society – are hard to rebut, although there is a danger in abolition that we lose some of the positives of the Lords – and there are positives. The Lords has been an effective bulwark against the erosion of civil liberties in recent years for example. Replacing the Lords with an elected chamber also throws up potential problems. It would, for example, remove most, if not all, of the wealth of experience of peers appointed from science, business and the like, and a good case can be made for many peers with huge experience of politics and public life. There is also a risk of an elected chamber vying for authority with the Commons and legislation ending in gridlock.

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However, none of these issues is unfixable and they are certainly not serious enough to undermine the fundamental argument for reform, which is based on a basic principle of democracy: everyone who proposes, votes on, and passes the laws of the land should be elected and accountable. The Fowler report does make an attempt to address the democratic deficit by proposing that the 91 hereditary peers would be phased out by not replacing them when they die. It also suggests that peers would be limited to a 15-year term and that their number would be capped at 600 (a cut of 200). These are fine recommendations as far as they go. The problem is they do not go far enough.

For it to have any chance of long-term political and public support, reform must proceed from here on the basis of some simple principles, the first being that a legislative chamber should rely on democracy not patronage. Reducing the number of hereditary peers in 1999 was the right thing to do, but it also had the effect of increasing the power of political appointments. Direct elections to the Lords would increase the power of political parties and reduce the influence of the independent, but better that than the sight of life peerages being handed out as political rewards.

Cost effectiveness should also be a guiding principle of reform and on this too the House of Lords fails. The chamber costs some £100 million a year but, most offensively, peers can claim £300 a day, tax-free, for just 45 minutes’ attendance. Many peers do play an important role in scrutinising legislation but they should only be paid if it can be demonstrated they are making a material contribution rather than just turning up for the cash.

Sadly, the Fowler report does not properly address any of these fundamental issues and to that extent its critics are right to say that it is far too timid. It is heading in the right direction by proposing a smaller chamber and the phasing out of hereditary peers, but only fundamental reform based on democratic accountability and transparency will do. Campaigners first called for it more than 100 years ago. The hope must be that, a century on, this most recent call for change is heeded.