The House of Lords has faced increasing criticisms over its size – now well over 800 members – and David Cameron was criticised for his excessive peerage appointments. We now not only have a new Prime Minister, but a new Lord Speaker who has spoken out clearly about the need to reduce the size chamber to below that of the House of Commons. But what are the right mechanisms to achieve this, and to ensure that similar problems do not simply recur? Meg Russell analyses the options.
The growing size of the House of Lords has become increasingly controversial. Under David Cameron’s premiership, membership rose from just over 700 members to well beyond 800 in just six years, and he appointed to the chamber at a faster rate than any other prime minister since life peerages began (see page 13 here for figures to 2015). Both the Lords’ size and rate of appointments have frequently attracted fierce press criticism. Public figures expressing concern in recent months have included the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Bew, and the outgoing Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza.
Just in case Prime Minister Theresa May was in doubt about the strength of feeling on this issue, the incoming Lord Speaker Lord (Norman) Fowler began his term by strongly speaking out for change. Fowler was formerly a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, and party chairman under John Major, so has significant gravitas in Conservative circles. In a BBC interview on 16 September he suggested ‘that by the next election, [the Lords] should be at a number that is just less than the House of Commons’, emphasising how the current situation is damaging to parliament’s reputation. A particularly sensitive contextual issue is that the Commons is itself due to shrink in 2020, from 650 MPs to 600, under the government’s proposed boundary changes. In an interview for the House Magazine (reproduced on Politics Home) Fowler commented that ‘I don’t think that we can justify a situation where you have over 800 peers at the same time as you’re bringing down the Commons to 600 MPs’. Conservative chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee Charles Walker has gone further, suggesting that getting the Lords below 600 should be made a condition for voting the boundary changes through. A cross-party group of peers is pressing for the Lords to vote on the principle of being no larger than the Commons in the near future (notably the UK is the only bicameral country in the world where the second chamber is larger than the first). Conservative chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Bernard Jenkin, has meanwhile asked his committee to launch an inquiry into Lords numbers and appointments.
So this appears to be a reform whose time has come. But the key question is how best to reduce from 800+ members to 600. To succeed, any such reduction must be both sustainable and seen to be fair. Here I argue that this requires four interconnected things: a large number of departures before 2020, a long-term cap on the size of the House, limitations on future appointments, and an agreed principle of balance between the parties (and other groups). Without all four, any attempted reform is doomed to fail.