The House of Lords is too large: party leaders must put aside short-term interests and agree plans to reduce its numbers

Five years after its creation, the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House has called for firm, fast action on reducing the number of peers in the legislature. Chair of the committee, Lord (Terry) Burns, argues that it is essential that party leaders have the courage to come together and agree the necessary measures. 

To mark the retirement of Lord (Norman) Fowler as Lord Speaker, the committee he set up to make recommendations on reducing the size of the House of Lords recently published its fourth report. I have had the intriguing task of chairing the committee, which was ably advised by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Meg Russell.

The House of Lords has too many members

There have been over 1,500 life peers appointed since the enactment of the Life Peerages Act 1958. Of those, just over 800 have now died or retired. The net result is a House today consisting of some 700 life peers, 92 hereditary peers (there are currently vacancies because several by-elections were postponed due to the pandemic) and 26 bishops. The numbers for hereditary peers and bishops are both set by legislation, and it follows that changes to the overall size of the House are now determined almost entirely by increases or decreases in the number of life peers – which is not limited by statute or convention.

During the first 30 or so years of life peerages, there were an average of 20 appointments per year, which has since risen to 30 per year. The average age at appointment has been reasonably steady at 60, with a small decline in recent years.

There were relatively few leavers in the early years owing to the small size of the group of life peers, but over the past 30 years the average number has been close to 20 per year. The average age of leavers has risen over time, reflecting increased life expectancy, and has stood at a little over 80 in recent years.

The House was greatly reduced in size by the 1999 reforms, which removed hundreds of hereditary peers, but concerns have been raised during the past 10 years about its increasing size as the number of life peers rose above 700 and the total number of members moved back above 800. Several relatively small legislative changes have been introduced allowing for retirements and excluding members after a period of non-attendance – but all attempts to change the composition of the House have foundered.

A cap on appointments is essential to reducing the size of the Lords

In 2016 Lord Fowler established the committee to investigate practical and politically viable options that might lead to progress in reducing the size of the House. It has been a fruitful forum and I am immensely grateful to the other five members for their constructive and collegiate approach and to our Clerk, Tom Wilson for his wise counsel.

At the outset we divided our task into two parts:

  • first, to identify a more systematic process for appointments and retirements to maintain the overall size at the target level of 600 members (‘the steady state’);
  • second, to make proposals for handling a one-off reduction in numbers to 600 (‘the transition’).

The committee focused on the most significant problem – the absence of a limit or cap on the size of the House of Lords. Prime Ministerial patronage and the ability to appoint an unlimited number of members, who are entitled to a seat for life, is the root cause of the persistent increase in the size of the House. Between the removal of most hereditary peers in 1999 and the time of our first report in 2017 there were on average 30 appointments and 20 departures per year, leading to a net increase of 175.

Furthermore, it is a system that encourages leapfrogging following changes of government after long periods of a single party in power. This is where an incoming government creates new peers of its own party in order to improve its voting strength in the Lords, but there is no corresponding reduction in members on the other benches. As this behaviour is copied following each change of government we see a continuous increase in the overall membership. The chart below shows the estimated number of life peers belonging to the two major parties in the House, year by year. This is based on party at the time of appointment and therefore overstates the number of members who are currently affiliated to those parties.

From 1964 to 1979 the number of Labour life peers rose faster than the number of Conservatives. Between 1979 and 1997 the pattern was reversed, as it was again following the 1997 Labour landslide and once more following the 2010 general election. Because of the absence of a limit on the size of the House these changes were brought about simply by increasing the total number of life peers.

*Measured by party at the time of appointment

Reducing numbers is a crucial first step towards a workable system

The committee is strongly of the view that a limit on the size is a crucial first step in having a workable system. This is hardly an unusual idea and is what happens in almost all legislative chambers. If appointments can only be made when there are vacancies, not only will the numbers remain stable, but it will also incentivise the appointment of people who plan to make a genuine contribution to the House over several years – thus reducing the number of peers who Lord Fowler has referred to as ‘passengers’. For other individuals of distinction who do not wish to become legislators, we suggested providing for peerages which do not entail membership of the House.

However, for a limit on the size of the House to be sustainable it needs to be supported by other complementary reforms. Therefore, a second proposal is that room should be created to generate a steady flow of appointments to refresh the membership and to allow changes in the political balance of the House. We argued that this necessitated a retirement rule. Our chosen proposal was for members to be appointed for fixed terms. This would provide a predictable and consistent number of departures and thus vacancies.

Our third group of proposals was directed at appointments. For political appointments we wanted to get away from the leapfrogging that has occurred in the past. Instead, we suggested that appointments should be linked to general election results. Having examined the options of this being based upon (a) seats won in the House of Commons or (b) the share of the national vote, and modelled how each of them would have panned out at historic elections, we opted for taking an average of the two. The upshot of this would be that the political balance of the House would shift gradually, in a gentler way than in the House of Commons. 

For Crossbench appointments we wanted to see appointments in the same proportion as their current strength in the House and expected that they would mostly be made by the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC).

The shorter-term issue was how to reduce the numbers to a satisfactory level. Without legislation, our proposal was that each party and group should reduce its number of members each year by the same proportion on a ‘two out, one in’ approach until we had reached 600. The profile we put forward was that this should happen over 11 years.

Our first report was published in October 2017 and debated in the Lords that December, with 95 members taking part and the great majority of speakers supporting our proposals.

A smaller House is dependent on a Prime Minister committed to restraint

Following the committee’s report there was a period when the rate of departures exceeded the rate of appointments and the size of the House reduced. This was partly because of the restraint shown by Theresa May in the number of appointments and partly because a significant number of members made use of the relatively new option to retire.

However, we have also seen some headwinds with a change in Prime Minister and two general elections. These are significant events because typically they bring forward retirement and dissolution lists of appointments. Over the whole history of life peerages, slightly more than 25% of appointments were made in dissolution or resignation lists, in no small measure reflecting the retirement of MPs. Indeed, some 40% of political appointments (excluding Crossbench appointments) have been former MPs.

As a committee we stand by the proposals we made four years ago. However, in our most recent report we have drawn attention to some additional issues.

A faster transition to 600 is essential

The experience since our initial report is that although we have succeeded in stabilising the numbers, we have not made the progress we wanted. Our conclusion is that we now need a faster transition to a House of 600, because the original timescale is too vulnerable to further headwinds. The reduction could be achieved by the end of this parliament with the support of the leaders of the main parties. We have received strong indications that there are many members who would willingly retire but are not ready to do so without a cross-party agreement about the scale and balance of new appointments.

Hereditary by-elections must come to an end

We also concluded that the time has come to end the by-elections to replace excepted hereditary peers when they leave. Some talented people have joined the House through this route, but it is an interim solution that has endured for two decades and inhibits the rebalancing of the House as political trends change: the allocation of the hereditary spaces in the House between the parties is set in stone. It is clear from the debates on Lord Grocott’s private member’s bills over the years that there is, increasingly, general support for this step across the House.

The Prime Minister must show more restraint and allow HOLAC more scope to appoint Crossbenchers

We also noted that in recent years, Crossbenchers have increasingly been appointed by Prime Ministers rather than the independent HOLAC. Following the establishment of HOLAC there was an understanding that there would be a limit on prime ministerial appointments to the Crossbenches. However, over time this limit has been relaxed and the current Prime Minister has taken this a step further with a new practice of appointing ‘non-affiliated’ peers, who tend to be political figures who have for whatever reason had a parting of ways with their party. The number of appointments at any given time is in the gift of the Prime Minister: if the government is nominating a large number of peers, then it is likely – and has recently been the case – that the Prime Minister will offer HOLAC fewer places to fill. We are anxious that this is limiting the room for HOLAC appointments to the Crossbenches.

Party leaders should put aside short-term interests and commit to reform

It is not difficult to understand the reluctance of Prime Ministers to address these issues given their other priorities. We are also aware that some groups are anxious for deeper and wider reform. However, experience demonstrates that such reform is difficult to achieve.

I am in no doubt that the present system is flawed and, in the absence of major legislation, we should not underestimate the potential gains from removing those flaws. As we have set out, it is possible to have a House of Lords which is smaller than the Commons, which reflects the changing balance of political opinion in the country, and which allows for the membership and the ministerial front bench to be refreshed. Without these changes, the authority and reputation of the House will suffer. The new Lord Speaker, Lord (John) McFall, has said he will raise these issues with the Prime Minister and seek to accelerate progress. The question is: do the party leaders and the Prime Minister have the courage to put aside their short-term interests and strike a firm agreement to make these necessary improvements?

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About the author

Lord (Terry) Burns is Chair of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House.

The author image is used courtesy of a Creative Commons licence.