17th October 2013
Today sees the publication of the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) report “House of Lords reform: what next?”. It also sees a story in The Times (paywall) that David Cameron is preparing yet another list of new peers. Nothing could indicate better the need for the kind of small steps that the PCRC recommends. The next steps in Lords reform may be small, but they are increasingly urgent. Tomorrow will see debate in the Commons on a Private Member’s Bill from Conservative backbencher Dan Byles, also on Lords reform. The small steps that it contains are welcome, and definitely worthwhile. But as the PCRC points out, the most burning matters are not contained in the Byles bill, and in fact do not need legislation at all – what they need is urgent and voluntary action by party leaders, and the Prime Minister in particular.
The context for the PCRC report is of course the failure of the government’s bill last year, which sought to move to a largely elected second chamber. Since those events – which showed splits on the government’s side as well as between the parties – there has been a growing feeling that some small changes must be made to the Lords in advance of any larger-scale reform. Everybody accepts that reform cannot occur until after the next election, and even then (as I point out in my recent book) it remains unlikely. In particular there is increasingly serious concern being expressed about the growing size of the House of Lords, which is plainly unsustainable. We pointed out in a high-profile report in 2011 that David Cameron’s rate of appointments had been unprecedented, and that the coalition’s stated goal of rebalancing the Lords in line with general election vote shares could take its size to over 1200. Since the furore caused by that report, few appointments have been made. But this August a further 30 peers were appointed, taking the size of the chamber to a post-1999 high. The Times story suggests that another 30 are in the pipeline, which is worrying to say the least.
Dan Byles’ bill (which is also mirrored by a bill in the Lords from former Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman, that goes further) would legislate to allow permanent retirements from the chamber, and the expulsion of peers convicted of serious criminal offences. In evidence to the PCRC last week (see question 24) Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg supported these changes, saying that there was ‘no reason to delay’ in making them happen. This may indicate that the bill will secure explicit government support, and could therefore reach the statute book. Which as a next small step, is welcome.
But as I pointed out in my evidence to the PCRC inquiry, and in a subsequent blogpost, the reform most urgently needed is not to how members can exit the House of Lords, but to how they enter. Even if retirements are allowed, the size of the chamber will still continue to grow unless prime ministerial appointments are regulated. Indeed, any retirement mechanism is likely to fail unless there is agreement between the parties on a formula for new appointments – because peers will be reluctant to depart if they think that all they will achieve by doing so is a weakening of their party (or Crossbench) group. Without an agreed formula on party balance, and on the overall size of the chamber, serious progress is unlikely to be made, meaning that the size of the chamber will continue to spiral upwards – making it both more expensive, and less effective.
Today’s PCRC report, while endorsing the idea of a voluntary retirement scheme and the expulsion of criminals (and thus adding weight to the argument behind the Byles bill), recognises this problem. In its closing paragraph it refers to “agreement on how to determine the relative numerical strengths of the different party groups and the Lords” as the change with “the most potential to have a positive impact on the size of the House”. The report’s summary describes this as “the most crucial” of the reforms that the committee considered. The committee – in line with my own evidence – threw this challenge to the political parties, and the Prime Minister in particular, to resolve. If we are not to be blighted with an ever larger, more expensive and less effective House of Lords, the government and the parties must do so with urgency. Those who could help bash out the right formula, and help facilitate such talks, such as the PCRC itself, the Lords Constitution Committee, the House of Lords Appointments Commission and perhaps the Lord Speaker should also now consider what part they can play. Meanwhile, until such agreement has been reached, making the new appointments indicated in today’s Times would seem inappropriate. Demanding that agreement should precede new appointments would certainly help concentrate the Prime Minister’s mind.
Meg Russell is Reader in British and Comparative Politics and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit. Her latest book, The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived, was published in July.