House of Lords reform: what next ? - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

1  Introduction

1. The House of Lords is one of the largest parliamentary chambers in the world. It is also considerably largely than the House of Commons, making the UK the only country where the size of the second chamber exceeds that of the first.[1] The membership of the House of Lords is also likely to grow further despite the fact that the major parties all advocate a smaller second chamber in the long term. There is no cap on the size of the Lords. The appointment in August 2013 of 30 new political peers takes to 785 the number of Members who are eligible to take part in the work of the House of Lords. With 53 peers temporarily disqualified or on leave of absence, the potential membership of the Chamber has reached 838.[2] Although the House of Lords has not grown markedly since 2007, and it is still smaller than before the removal of the majority of hereditary peers in 1999, average daily attendance figures have increased.[3] According to the Electoral Reform Society, the House of Lords is both "grossly oversized" and "growing unstably".[4]

2. Alan Renwick, of the University of Reading, stated that there is "general consensus" among peers and academics that the House is too large and that its size ought to reduced.[5] In 2011, the Leader's Group on Members Leaving the House stated that the first effect of a significant increase in numbers is the risk to the reputation of the House:

    It is unhelpful for the second Chamber to be regarded as of excessive size at a time when the Government intends that the number of members of the House of Commons should be reduced. The standing of the House as a serious Parliamentary forum is compromised by its apparently unchecked growth and by a lack of understanding of the reasons for further new appointments.[6]

3. The Leader's Group also referred to the cost implications of an ever-growing House. It stated: "Hitherto the administration has contained costs by means of efficiency improvements, but rising numbers of active members will inevitably eventually have consequences either for standards of service or for costs."[7]

4. The practical consequences of a growing House of Lords were also detailed by the Constitution Unit in its 2011 House Full report which was endorsed by a number of Members from both Houses of Parliament as well as a number of academics.[8] The report stated: "to the world outside the most obvious effect [of increasing numbers] might be the rising cost, in terms of allowances, etc [but] the far bigger problem is the effect of the House of Lords' growing size on its ability to function effectively".[9] It referred to a range of issues, including increasingly limited opportunities for peers to contribute to debates, increased competition for opportunities to initiate business, reduced speaking times, increasing pressure on the Chamber's mechanisms of self-regulation and difficulties gaining places on Select Committees.[10] It also noted that as the numbers of those attending increases so too does the pressure on its resources. The Leader's Group also stated that overcrowding is a problem, desk space is limited and demand for research and support services is increasing.[11] Yet while it is generally accepted that the House's increasing size is neither sustainable nor desirable, there is currently no consensus on how best to tackle this.

5. Efforts to reform the House of Lords and reduce its size are far from new. As Lord Hennessy, a Cross-bench peer and Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, told us:

    Lords reform is the Bermuda Triangle of British politics, or one of them. Every generation or so people go into the Bermuda Triangle. Some never reappear; others appear singed, vowing one thing, never to return.[12]

The most recent attempt at wholesale reform, in the form of the Government's 2012 House of Lords Reform Bill, would have seen the size of the House reduced to 450. The Government had proposed that voters would be able to elect Members of the reformed House of Lords for the first time in May 2015. One-third of the elected Members would be chosen at the General Election in 2015, another third in 2020 and the final third in 2025—120 Members in each election. Existing peers would be 'phased' out as elected Members were introduced. In total, 80 per cent (360 Members) of the total of 450 Members, would be elected. The remaining 20 per cent (90 Members) would be appointed by a statutory Appointments Commission on a non-party basis. There would also be 12 Church of England bishops, a reduction from the current 26 church representatives, reflecting the smaller overall size of the Chamber.[13]

6. However, the withdrawal of the Bill in September 2012 after the Government concluded that "it would not be able to secure the Commons majority needed to pass the programme motion that accompanies the Bill", ended any short-term prospects for large-scale reform.[14] Yet reform is not totally off the agenda; two Private Members' Bills, introduced by Baroness Hayman in the Lords and Dan Byles MP in the Commons, have reignited the debate over the issue, albeit on a much reduced scale.[15] With tightly focused provisions and smaller-scale ambitions, these Bills are of a wholly different ilk to the large, wholesale reform effort that characterised the Government's 2012 Bill.

7. For us, the news that Baroness Hayman and Mr Byles were to introduce these Bills was timely, not least because we had already started to take the temperature on House of Lords reform by launching our own inquiry into what, if any, smaller-scale changes to the membership and structure of the House of Lords would be likely to command a consensus. Our call for evidence asked for views on the desirability, practicality and effectiveness of mechanisms for reducing the size of the House of Lords, including the following:

  • no longer replacing hereditary peers in the House of Lords when they die;
  • measures to remove persistent non-attendees;
  • a moratorium on new peers;
  • fixed-term appointments for new peers;
  • a retirement age for peers.

We also invited evidence on:

  • the effectiveness of the current voluntary retirement scheme for peers introduced following the recommendations of the Leader's Group on Members Leaving the House.
  • The desirability and scope of a mechanism to expel peers who have been convicted of a serious offence.
  • The desirability, composition and remit of a Statutory Appointments Commission.
  • The scope for establishing a consensus about the principles which should determine the relative numerical strengths of the different party groups in the House of Lords, and for codifying such principles.

8. We received a wide range of written evidence from members of the public, academics, Members of both Houses of Parliament, policy experts and campaigning groups. Our deliberations were also informed by the oral evidence sessions that we held with a number of expert panels. We express our gratitude to all those who took the time to offer their views.

9. During this inquiry we have sought to avoid straying into the topic of wider, wholesale House of Lords reform. There is no doubt that this is a topic worthy of further debate, but we have chosen to focus on the potential for implementing smaller-scale reforms, because this is where we believe there is a chance of achieving consensus at present.

1   Ev w43 Back

2   'Lord appointments urgently need regulation', Constitution Unit Press Release, 1 August 2013. Temporary disqualification applies to those who are Judges or MEPs Back

3   Ev w27 Back

4   Ev w19 Back

5   Ev w24 Back

6   "Members Leaving the House", Leader's Group on Members Leaving the House, HL Paper 83, Session 2010-2011, 13 January 2011, para 15 Back

7   Ibid., para 17 Back

8   The Constitution Unit, House Full, April 2011  Back

9   Ibid. Back

10   Ibid; Ev 14 [Prof MacLean]; Q 155 Back

11   "Members Leaving the House", Leader's Group on Members Leaving the House, HL Paper 83, Session 2010-2011, 13 January 2011, paras 16 Back

12   Q 62 Back

13   "Historic Bill to reform House of Lords", Press Release from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 27 June 2012 Back

14   HC Deb 3 Spetember 2012, col 35; Ev 39 [Dr Russell] Back

15   Baroness Hayman's House of Lords Reform Bill [HL] 2013-14 had its First Reading on in the House of Lords on 15 May, 2013. Dan Byles's House of Lords Reform (No. 2) Bill had its First Reading in the Commons on 19 June. Its Second Reading is expected to take place on 18 October. Back

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Prepared 17 October 2013