Why Labour should adopt a two-stage approach to House of Lords reform

Today the Constitution Unit publishes a report jointly with the Institute for Government and Bennett Institute on the options for House of Lords reform. Here, in the second of two posts summarising its conclusions, report author Meg Russell argues that if Labour wins the next election, it should pursue a two-stage approach. This would begin with immediate urgent changes to the appointments process and hereditary peers, while the party consulted on larger-scale proposals such as those set out in the Brown report.

Today the Constitution Unit publishes a new report, House of Lords reform: navigating the obstacles, jointly with the Institute for Government and the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge. This is the second of two posts summarising some of the report’s conclusions, with a particular focus on Labour’s options for Lords reform.

The previous post explored proposals from Labour’s commission chaired by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for an elected ‘Assembly of the Nations and Regions’. It suggested, on the basis of past UK and international experience, that large-scale reform of this kind will be difficult to achieve, and could not be actioned by Labour immediately. The Brown report leaves many open questions on which careful consultation and deliberation would be required. Meanwhile, there are clear problems with the House of Lords which are widely recognised, and would be relatively straightforward to deal with. This post focuses on such beneficial small-scale changes, including:

  • placing a limit on the size of the House of Lords
  • agreeing a formula for the sharing of seats
  • introducing greater quality control on appointments
  • removing the remaining hereditary peers.

More detailed consideration was given to the first three of these options in another recent post on this blog. Hence this one deals with them quite briefly, then draws the strands together, considering a possible strategy for the Labour Party on Lords reform if it comes to power.

Placing a limit on the size of the House of Lords

One of the most visible difficulties with the House of Lords is its growing size. Reform by Tony Blair’s government in 1999 removed most hereditary peers, slashing the chamber from more than 1,200 members to 666. But since then, its size has crept gradually upwards again. There was a net growth of around 70 members under Blair, and well over 100 under David Cameron – though Gordon Brown and Theresa May each presided over net reductions of around 30 members. Boris Johnson’s appointments were also excessive, and concern remains about his possible resignation honours list. Currently, the size of the House of Lords hovers around 800.

The Conservative manifestos of 2015 and 2017 both acknowledged that the size of the House of Lords needed to be ‘addressed’, but no specific government action has followed. In 2016, the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, chaired by Crossbencher Lord (Terry) Burns, was created. It recommended that the size of the chamber should be gradually managed down to 600 and then be capped at that level. This contributed to Theresa May’s caution in appointing peers, and was broadly welcomed by the relevant Commons committee. Most recently, Lord (Philip) Norton of Louth has proposed a private member’s bill which would require the House of Lords to be no larger than the House of Commons (currently 650 members), but it has limited chance of becoming law.

While members of the House of Lords can now retire, retirements alone cannot solve the problem, as even larger numbers of others can always be appointed to replace departing peers. The fundamental problem is consistent over appointment by successive prime ministers. The solution is therefore for the Prime Minister to explicitly commit to managing the chamber down to an agreed size (likely, 600 or 650). Ideally, legislation would subsequently back this up.

Agreeing a formula for the sharing of seats

An important driver of the chamber’s growing size has historically been prime ministers’ desire to rebalance in partisan terms after the appointments of their predecessors. Without an agreed formula for party balance, this upward ratchet effect is likely to continue. Various proposals to address this have been made, with the Burns committee suggesting that the formula should share new appointments between the parties based on an average of their most recent general election vote share and seat share in the House of Commons. In addition, most previous Lords reform proposals have suggested reserving 20% or more of seats for independent Crossbenchers (currently 23% of the chamber). Maintaining this principle would help to ensure that no party had an overall majority in the Lords.

The problem of party balance would pose a particular dilemma for an incoming Labour government, as the excessive number of Conservative appointments in recent years leaves the party around 90 seats ahead of Labour. But if a future Prime Minister sought immediately to use appointments to make Labour the largest party, this could take the chamber to 900 members or more.

The essential step is commitment to a clear and sustainable formula for the share of future appointments. Again, this could be achieved immediately through a straightforward public commitment by the Prime Minister, ideally to be cemented subsequently through legislation. Options for short-term rebalancing are touched on below, and covered in greater detail in the report.

Introducing greater quality control on appointments

Another common complaint about the Lords concerns the quality of its members, and the lack of adequate vetting for party peers. Media stories about this appear regularly, focused on controversial individuals or collectively on major party donors. Most members of the Lords are entirely reputable and make useful contributions, but the prevalence of such stories damages the institution.

The House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) currently uses a rigorous appointments process for selecting members to sit as Crossbenchers, but party nominees receive far less vetting. HOLAC checks them only for propriety (e.g. concerning their tax affairs and criminal activity), rather than suitability. Even this is only advisory, and Boris Johnson once overruled HOLAC’s advice.

There have been many calls for greater quality control over party political appointments. In 2007, the relevant Commons committee suggested that HOLAC should select names from lists of nominees put forward by the parties, allowing it to monitor peers’ diversity regarding area of residence, gender, ethnicity and expertise. In 2018 its successor committee proposed publication of statements setting out clearly why each new party peer is qualified to serve in the Lords. HOLAC itself has recently indicated that it is ‘increasingly uncomfortable’ with the narrowness of its remit.

In addition to conducting such vetting, HOLAC is the obvious body to take responsibility for monitoring the size of the chamber, the formula for sharing new appointments and the space for such appointments. When first created in 2000, HOLAC’s powers were simply specified in a letter from the Prime Minister. It would be equally straightforward to expand its responsibilities now, though again this would ideally be underpinned later through legislation.

Hereditary peers

The final obvious area for short-term reform concerns the remaining hereditary peers. Initially, the 1997 Labour government planned to remove all such peers, but 92 were retained as part of a deal with the Conservative Party. This was intended to be a temporary arrangement, but by-elections to replace hereditary peers who retire or die have now been in place for over 20 years.

Ever since then, there have been attempts to end this arrangement. Most recently, former Labour Chief Whip Lord Grocott has pursued such change repeatedly, but without success. The government has not backed his private member’s bill, despite widespread support within the House of Lords.

To date, most focus has been on ending the by-elections rather than removing the 92 hereditary peers altogether – many of whom make useful contributions. There were concerns that their wholesale removal would be unfair on the Conservatives, who hold 46 of these seats, while Labour holds just four. But given the Conservative Party’s strong representation, an incoming Labour government could now achieve some rebalancing simply by abolishing these seats – which would require legislation. A small number of the most active hereditary members could be given life peerages.


The recent Brown commission report described the House of Lords as ‘indefensible’. It backed up this statement with evidence about the chamber’s size, the volume and quality of prime ministerial appointments, and the presence of hereditary peers. Polling shows that the public strongly share some of these concerns – only 3% support the status-quo position of no cap on the size of the House of Lords, and only 6% believe that the Prime Minister (rather than an independent commission) should be responsible for appointments.

So on some of the most glaring problems regarding the Lords, there seems to be widespread agreement – making progress readily attainable. Meanwhile, both historical and international evidence shows that large-scale second chamber reform can be very difficult to achieve. The Brown proposals for an elected Assembly of the Nations and Regions left many questions unanswered, and making them work would require careful consultation and deliberation. Meanwhile, other urgent problems with the House of Lords could be resolved far more quickly.

Given the lack of recent government action, and the current state of the polls, the next steps in Lords reform may fall to Labour. The most successful Labour reform was that of 1997, when the Blair government gained office committed to a two-stage process – beginning with the removal of most hereditary peers, which significantly improved the chamber. If Labour wants to succeed at Lords reform, it should now adopt a similar two-stage approach, committing to an immediate initial package of reforms, while consulting on larger-scale reform. Key elements of this package could be actioned straightaway without legislation, and others through a short, uncontroversial bill within a Labour government’s first year. The key changes would be:

  • An immediate commitment that the size of the House of Lords should be brought down to no greater than that of the House of Commons.
  • Introduction of a transparent formula for new party appointments based on general election votes, with an additional 20% of seats reserved for independent Crossbenchers.
  • Giving the House of Lords Appointments Commission new powers to vet party political peers and oversee the size and party balance in the chamber.
  • Introducing legislation to deal with the hereditary peers, to either end the byelections or, more radically, remove these members altogether. A small number who are currently very active might be created life peers.
  • Any such bill should also set out in statute the new powers already given to the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
  • This legislation could enforce a one-off reduction in the number of peers based on votes in party (and other) groups, if a more gradualist approach was considered too slow.

Any of these changes could of course potentially be brought into effect by Rishi Sunak now.

Proponents of change need to be under no illusions: achieving House of Lords reform is difficult. When reformers seek perfection, change inevitably eludes them. Hence a pragmatic approach is required. Small-scale reform of the Lords is not the enemy of large-scale reform – indeed, it is the only thing that has ever succeeded. The House of Lords plays an important part in our national political life, but it is undermined by uncontrolled prime ministerial appointments, growing size and the continued membership of hereditary peers. The public want change on these things and – before doing anything else – party leaders should deliver them.

This is the second post summarising Meg Russell’s report, House of Lords Reform: Navigating the Obstacles, jointly published by the Constitution Unit, Institute for Government and Bennett Institute for Public Policy. The first post can be found here, and the full report at the title link above.

About the author

Meg Russell FBA is Professor of British and Comparative Politics at UCL and Director of the Constitution Unit.

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