The size of the House of Lords: what next?

This week two developments have revived controversies about the size of the House of Lords. On Tuesday peers debated the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, indicating strong support for its proposals. But there were also rumours that Theresa May will appoint new peers in the New Year. Meg Russell reflects on these developments and how they can, and should, fit together.

The growing size of the House of Lords, and particularly the volume of prime ministerial appointments, has been highly controversial in recent years – as set out in a Constitution Unit report in 2015, and frequently highlighted on this blog (e.g. here). This time last year the chamber took matters into its own hands, agreeing a motion that ‘this House believes that its size should be reduced’, which was rapidly followed by the announcement of a new Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, chaired by Crossbencher Lord Burns. The Burns report was published in October, and was debated in the Lords on Tuesday.

Source: Report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, Figure 1

The core proposals in the report (previously summarised on this blog by Sir David Beamish) are to bring the size of the chamber down to a ‘steady state’ of no more than 600 members, appointed for fixed 15 year terms. Appointments would continue to be made by the party leaders, but would respect a proportionality formula based on previous general election results. In the steady state the number of appointments would match retirements, but until then a ‘two out one in’ principle would apply. The report estimated that the target of 600 members would be achieved in around 11 years. All of this would be achieved by negotiation, backed up by changes to House of Lords rules and procedures, without the need for legislation.

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Report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the House of Lords: a real opportunity for progress on reform

Yesterday saw publication of the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House of Lords, which recommended moving to a chamber of no more than 600 members, appointed for 15-year terms. This follows years of controversy about the growing size of the Lords, which currently stands at over 800. Sir David Beamish, formerly the most senior official in the House of Lords, argues that the proposals offer the best opportunity for years for some small progress on the knotty issue of Lords reform.

The recommendations of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House of Lords, published yesterday, offer the best opportunity for many years to reform the membership of the House of Lords in a way that can – and should – achieve sufficient consensus across the political spectrum. The committee’s recommendations for reform without the need for legislation are both thoughtful and ingenious.

House of Lords reform has usually been stymied by lack of agreement on what should replace the existing second chamber. It has generally proved impossible to get a majority for any one proposed reform. The most striking exception was the removal of some 650 hereditary peers in 1999, thanks to the 1997 Labour manifesto having included a specific commitment. But that was billed as the first stage of a two-stage reform, and that second stage remains elusive.

The 1999 Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Wakeham, undertook what might be called a ‘zero-based review’ of the second chamber, looking at what functions were appropriate to a second chamber, what powers were needed to perform those functions, and only then how the second chamber should be constituted. It was affirming for the House of Lords that the recommendations on functions and powers were generally for little change – a proposal for a Constitution Committee was quickly implemented without awaiting wider reform – and ever since then the debate on Lords reform has focused primarily on composition. The issue of powers resurfaced briefly after the House upset the Conservative government in October 2015 by failing to approve the Tax Credits (Income Thresholds and Determination of Rates) (Amendment) Regulations, leading to a review by Lord Strathclyde of the Lords’ powers in relation to secondary legislation. However, the Brexit referendum led to a change of priorities, and Lord Strathclyde’s proposals were put on the back burner. With the government’s loss of its Commons majority in June 2017, it seems unlikely that those proposals could now be implemented even if the government wished.

Against a background of no likelihood of major Lords reform in the next few years, the impact on the House of large numbers of appointments of life peers by successive prime ministers (with the honourable exception of Gordon Brown) became a matter of serious concern to members. The increase in numbers led to increased costs, pressure on resources (including seating in the chamber – attendance at prayers boomed when members realised that that was the only way to be sure of a seat at question time), and a significant negative impact on the House’s reputation.

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