The truth about House of Lords appointments


Yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron, seemingly undeterred by the already negative media coverage about the Lord Sewel affair, gave strong indications that he intends to make yet more appointments to the Lords. In doing so, he appeared to invoke a convention that does not exist: that of bringing Lords membership into line with Commons seats. In this post Meg Russell sets out some of the basic facts about Lords appointments, and some options for what might be done.

In recent days the media has been dominated by stories about the conduct of Lord Sewel. On the back of this, there have been numerous calls for Lords reform, or even abolition. Various outlets have linked this to rumours that Prime Minister David Cameron plans imminently to appoint more peers – which have been circulating for weeks. But despite media coverage of the Lords having reached a nadir, and the fact that his previous appointments have attracted howls of media outrage, Cameron seemed to signal yesterday that he intends to press ahead with new appointments. In doing so he implied a convention that prime ministers always behave in this way, saying:

‘It is important the House of Lords in some way reflects the situation in the House of Commons. At the moment it is well away from that. I’m not proposing to get there in one go. [But] it is important to make sure the House of Lords more accurately reflects the situation in the House of Commons. That’s been the position with prime ministers for a very, very long time and for very good and fair reason.’

This seems to be an attempt by the Prime Minister to make a new set of appointments to strengthen the Conservatives in the Lords look routine, even inevitable. But Cameron’s pattern of appointments to date has in fact been extremely unusual, and is causing increasing problems. The remainder of this post sets out some bare facts about Lords appointments, and then turns briefly to how things might be done differently.

The facts

  • The most basic fact is that the pattern of House of Lords appointments lies completely in the hands of the Prime Minister. The Queen appoints to the Lords on the Prime Minister’s advice. He has completely free rein over how many appointments are recommended, when, and with what balance between the parties (and independent members).
  • Up to February 2015 (as detailed here) David Cameron’s rate of appointments to the Lords exceeded that of any other Prime Minister since passage of the Life Peerages Act in 1958: 40 per year, compared to 38 for Harold Wilson, 37 for Tony Blair, 25 for John Major and 18 for Margaret Thatcher. Full lists of peers appointed since 1997 can be found here.
  • During 2010-15, while the overall number of appointments rose, the number of independent (nonparty) peers appointed fell. The House of Lords Appointments Commission, which recommends most such peers, depends on the Prime Minister to invite nominations. As detailed here, just eight nominations were made on the recommendation of the Commission in 2010-15 compared to 31 during the 2005-10 parliament, and 22 during the previous the five years 2000-05.
  • The new appointments in the period 2010-15 increased the number of peers eligible to attend the House of Lords from 706 to 791 (while the total number of peers rose from 735 to 847). This net growth over five years was roughly double that over the previous 10: in 2000 there were 662 eligible peers (or 666 in total). This can be seen graphically here.
  • There are cost implications of a growth in numbers. In the 2009-10 session the average daily attendance was 388 peers, and in 2014-15 it was 483 peers – an increase of 95. As members can claim a £300 daily attendance allowance, this growth under the first Cameron government already implies increased allowances of up to £28,500 for every day that the House of Lords sits.
  • There is no clear convention for how prime ministers should share out seats between political parties. Most have appointed more peers to their own side than to opposition parties (the exception was Heath, as shown on page 13 here). Despite Cameron’s suggestion, there is no expectation for the balance in the Lords to ‘reflect that in the House of Commons’. This is illustrated by the situations under the last two governments…
  • Tony Blair made numerous appointments to the Lords, of which 58% were Labour. But the number of Labour peers did not overtake the number of Conservative peers until nine years after he assumed office, in 2006 (see previous link, page 12). Post-2010, Cameron made the Conservatives the largest party within four years. Four years into Blair’s premiership, in 2001, there were still 231 Conservative peers to 199 Labour.
  • Under the coalition 2010-15, there was a commitment (also not in line with previous precedent) to make membership of the Lords ‘reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election’. This is clearly a different commitment to that implied by Cameron yesterday: it refers to proportionality with vote shares; his statement implies proportionality with House of Commons seats.
  • The 2010 commitment to proportionality was widely criticised as unsustainable. For example, see our 2011 report supported by a senior group of cross-party figures here, and the detailed analysis in our February 2015 report here. This latter analysis showed that a strict application of proportionality could see the size of the House of Lords rising to over 2000 members within 10 years.
  • An attempt to bring the House of Lords into line with the share of House of Commons seats could have even more dramatic upward effects on its size. Under either formula the only way of rebalancing the chamber is to appoint more members – as there is no agreed mechanism for members to leave. Adjustments after each election thus simply make the chamber ever bigger.
  • Cameron’s biggest perceived problem with ‘overrepresentation’ in the Lords may well be the Liberal Democrats. The party today has 101 peers (representing 18% of all party peers), having recently won just 9% of the general election vote. But a key factor in any such ‘overrepresentation’ is Cameron’s own prior appointments. During 2010-15 he increased the number of Liberal Democrat peers by 46% (from 72 such members in 2010).
  • Should Cameron seek to rebalance the Lords in line with the 2015 results (in either votes or seats), he would thus be the first Prime Minister in history justify his new appointments by the need to cancel out his own previous appointments.
  • Any such appointments would of course make the Lords bigger still, illustrating exactly why post-election rebalancing cannot be sustainable. Meanwhile the section on the Lords in the 2015 Conservative manifesto included a commitment to ‘address… the size of the chamber’ (page 49).

So what should be done?

  • The root problem is the unregulated nature of prime ministerial appointments to the Lords. For so long as this exists, prime ministers will be tempted to appoint too many peers. Our February 2015 report set out in detail the effects of unregulated appointments, and a possible formula for appointments which would be both clear, transparent and sustainable (where each new round of appointments would be based proportionally on general election votes – rather than attempting to balance the chamber as a whole).
  • The most visible and immediate problem is the growing size of the chamber. Virtually every parliamentary chamber in the world has a fixed maximum size. For example the House of Lords’ closest comparator, the appointed Canadian Senate, has a maximum size of 105 members. Until the size of the chamber is capped, it will inevitably continue to grow.
  • Notably, the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Conservative) last week announced a moratorium on appointments to the Senate, until agreement on future reform could be reached. A moratorium has been proposed before in the UK, and seen as too radical. Now might be the time to revisit that policy, at least as a temporary solution.
  • The obvious body to regulate a reformed system of appointments is the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The Commission should also publish regular statistics on patterns of appointments to the Lords, and effects on Lords membership – starting now.
  • Other options to reduce the size of the chamber include more voluntary retirements (under the House of Lords reform Act 2014), or introduction of a compulsory retirement age. These may increasingly come under discussion, but can only ultimately offer a solution alongside regulated appointments. Fixed term appointments (of say 15 years) are also an option. None of these solutions will be easy to agree.
  • For many people the ultimate solution is an elected second chamber. There are strong and principled arguments for this, but history shows that it is very difficult to achieve (see for example chapters 2 and 10 in here). Such a change has been under discussion for over 100 years, and all recent attempts have failed. One reason that the urgent short-term problems of the Lords have not been tackled is that reformers have been too focused on a distant goal that remains as elusive as ever. In terms of a reality check, the Conservative manifesto stated that large-scale Lords reform was ‘not a priority in the next Parliament’, and Cameron reiterated that in his comments yesterday.

Meg Russell has commented on the next steps for House of Lords reform in the press a number of times this week in light of Lord Sewel’s resignation from the House of Lords. Details and links are available here.

About the Author

Meg Russell is Professor of British and Comparative Politics, and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, at UCL. She is author of The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived (Oxford University Press, 2013) and numerous other publications about the Lords. Enough is Enough: Regulating Prime Ministerial Appointments to the Lords was published on 9 February 2015 by the Constitution Unit (and is downloadable by clicking the title).

8 thoughts on “The truth about House of Lords appointments

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