10 Determining the relative numerical
strengths of party groups in the House of Lords |
67. In our terms of reference we asked witnesses
to offer their views on 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.
68. In his written evidence, Lord Howarth explained
how the current political balance is determined:
The process whereby members of political parties
arrive as members of the House of Lords is obscure and random.
It is controlled by the Prime Minister who determines how many
appointments each party leader can make. This produces an inflationary
ratchet: incoming Prime Ministers create masses of new peerages,
offering some to other parties but always making sure they strengthen
their own party's relative headcount in the division lobbies.
The party leaders reward old friends, donors, superannuated colleagues
who have behaved themselves and so forth. The House gets larger
and larger. It is indeed indefensible.
One of the problems with this system, according to
Alan Renwick, is that "the composition of the chamber can
be substantially altered at the whim of the serving prime minister"
leaving "the Prime Minister great scope to change those strengths
to his or her own advantage". This, he argued, is a problem
of principle: "it is wrong for the Prime Minister to have
such great power over the composition of one of the chambers of
Dr Russell concurred:
[The] biggest single problem with the current
composition of the Lords is the Prime Minister's unregulated patronage
with respect to party peers. S/he continues to decide how many
should be appointed, when, and with what balance between the parties.
This is an inappropriate power for the head of the executive to
hold over the composition of parliament, and could allow legislative
outcomes to be manipulated (e.g. by a Prime Minister wanting to
prevent Lords defeats by "packing" their own side).
Furthermore, it is this unregulated power that has led to the
growing size of the chamber.
69. The written evidence suggested various ways in
which relative numerical strengths could, and should, be determined.
For instance, the Electoral Reform Society believed that the principles
determining party strength should take account of the balance
between party and independent peers. It stated that "the
independence of the upper chamber and the balance between party
and Cross-bench MPs should be considered as part of any codification.
No party should have an overall majority in the House of Lords.
It should be a forum where all interests are heard but none dominate."
Dr Baldwin and Dr Ballinger both also referred to the idea that
no individual party should have an overall majority in the House,
with Dr Ballinger suggesting that there seems to be "some
measure of agreement that no party should seek a permanent majority
in the upper House".
These principles are contained in Baroness Hayman's Bill which
would give the Government a majority over the Opposition without
allowing it to dominate the House as a whole as well as guaranteeing
the Cross-benches and non-affiliated Members at least 20% of seats.
70. In terms of how the relative strengths would
be calculated, many submissions recommended that party balance
in the Lords should reflect the shares of the popular vote at
the most recent General Election. This mirrors the Government's
objective in the 2010 Coalition Agreement of "creating a
second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured
by the political parties in the last general election".
Dr Barber's evidence stated: "electoral support can be the
only principle upon which any formal determination of party representation
could be made,"
while Dr Baldwin argued: "balance should be derived from
the level of popular support achieved at the most recent general
election or from an aggregate of the level of popular support
achieved at the two most recent general elections."
Both the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Policy Committee and the
Green Party expressed a preference for allowing the electorate
to vote for peers directly. However, the Green Party accepted
that "until legislation is enacted to enable that to happen
then as a very minimum, as per the Coalition Agreement, it should
be reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political
parties in the last general election. 
Professor McLean stated: "if the House is to become a fully
nominated one [...], a minimum democratic requirement would be
that its party members should in some sense reflect (probably
lagged) public opinion as expressed in votes for the House of
71. However, a number of submissions expressed concern
about basing the composition of the House of Lords on the share
of the popular vote of the last General Election result. The Campaign
for a Democratic Upper House, for instance, stated that this would
"significantly under-represent small parties and independents".
Professor McLean addressed this point:
The rule might be, for example, that parties
are represented in proportion to the (unweighted) average share
of their national vote at the last three General Elections. A
threshold of, say, 5% of the popular vote could be set; but parties
which contest seats in only one part of the UK should only be
required to obtain 5% of the vote in the part of the UK where
they have run for the Commons. After each General Election, this
balance would have to be re-weighted. [...]. 
72. The Campaign for a Democratic Upper House also
argued that basing party strength on previous General Election
votes would "fundamentally change the nature of the franchise.
Voters would effectively be voting for two chambers."
Dr Russell argued that although the Coalition has not retracted
its commitment to balance the House of Lords of the basis of the
2010 General Election vote, with less than two years to go before
the next General Election "it would make no sense to return
to it now, more than halfway through the Parliament [...]".
73. Several submissions addressed the impact that
basing the composition of the House of Lords on the last General
Election vote could have on the size on the House. For instance,
the Electoral Reform Society argued that unless it was coupled
with reforms aimed at removing Members, it would increase rather
than decrease the size of the House. Dr Russell stated: "any
attempt to align the chamber's membership with general election
votes would operate as "an upward ratchet" (unless perhaps
some members were forced to depart the chamber at the same time)."
Indeed, in 2011 the Constitution Unit calculated that a further
82 new Conservative Peers and 97 new Liberal Democrats would be
required to make the party balance in the Lords reflect the votes
cast at the last General Election. This would bring the size of
the House up to over 1,062, while its membership would need to
increase to 1,142 if the present proportion of Cross-benchers
were to be maintained. The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Policy
Committee noted that:
These figures were contingent on the Prime Minister
deciding not to appoint any further Labour Peers, since their
numbers already exceed those justified by the 29% share polled
by Labour at the general election. However, on present evidence,
it appears the Prime Minister like his predecessors does not wish
to appoint members only of the governing parties. This admirable
altruism towards the Opposition makes the task of creating balance
in the House of Lords all the more difficult.
Unlock Democracy concluded that "without term
limits for members of the House of Lords, it is simply impossible
to maintain party balance in the second chamber without its size
Another possible option in this context could be to re-visit a
form of moratorium which would see more than one peer removed
every time a new peer was appointed, in line with an agreed party
balance and an agreed size for the House. This would in effect
ensure that new appointments could in fact help to reduce the
overall size of the House.
74. Both Dr Russell and Professor McLean suggested
that it may be more helpful if new appointments were required
to reflect General Election votes, rather than this formula being
applied to the Chamber overall.
This has been recommended by the Royal Commission, and numerous
others (including the Public Administration Committee and the
have previously proposed a long-term Lords membership that includes
some appointed party peers. Dr Russell argued that applying the
formula only to new appointments has the benefit of clarity and
transparency, and would also tend to level out the effect of electoral
fluctuations if Members are appointed for long terms. Such a formula
could be applied to batches of appointments (of say 10 or 20),
but equally could be used if Members were appointed individually
(for example on a one-in-one-out principle, following deaths or
75. However, for this formula to work, Dr Russell
argued that there would need to be agreement not only on the share
of appointments between the parties, but also on their overall
number. She added:
Most parliaments have a fixed size, and most
previous proposals for reform have envisaged this for the Lords.
Without a size cap, a Prime Minister might remain tempted to make
large numbers of appointments, as the proportionality formula
would still tend to favour their party while they are in power.
Hence a limit on the size of the chamber, and/or a limit on the
number of appointments per year, is essential.
There would need to be agreement about the proportion
of appointments that should go to independent Cross-benchers.
Again, there has been near-consensus from previous proposals that
this proportion should be set at 20%. It is the remaining 80%
of appointments, therefore, that would be shared proportionally
between the parties.
76. Dr Ballinger suggested:
Perhaps the most practicable method for reducing
the size of the House, without entirely altering the basis of
its composition (such as through fixed-term appointments, detached
from the peerage) would be to insist that each party group in
the Lords (and the crossbenchers) had to reduce their numbersthe
numbers can be chosen according to general election votes cast,
or some other agreed measure (and could be changed periodically).
The number of seats in the upper House would therefore be limited,
and not all Life Peers would be Members. This has precedents
not just in the selection of hereditary peers since 1997; but
also in the selection of members of the Scottish and Irish peerages
before 1963, and in the selection of Lord Bishops since 1847.
It could be left to each party group to determine their preferred
method and criteria of selection, within their number cap.
77. It is noteworthy that although Baroness Hayman's
Bill does not introduce a formal cap on the size of the House,
it moves very softly in that direction insofar as it states that
"[...] the Commission shall have regard to the need to achieve
a membership not exceeding that of the House of Commons".
78. Views differed on the prospect for securing a
consensus on the issue of party balance. The Campaign for a Democratic
Upper House thought that there would be little scope for consensus
while Professor McLean stated that the problem is that "self-regulation
potentially collides with partisan interest".
However, Alan Renwick pointed out that the principle that no party
should have a majority in the House of Lords had underpinned all
recent reform proposals and was apparently accepted on all sides
of the House.
79. There were various suggestions as to who, or
which body ought to take responsibility for codifying the principles
by which the relative numerical strengths of the parties should
be determined. Professor McLean stated: "the body which commands
respect in this area is the Electoral Commission, which already
has experience of some of the gaming issues likely to arise (e.g.
parties which pretend to merge or split in order to cross thresholds
or prevent their rivals from crossing thresholds)."
Dr Ryan suggested that the role of establishing the numerical
strengths of party groups in the House of Lords could be discharged
by an independent Appointments Commission "with the formula
for doing so set out in statute."
80. A number of witnesses including Dr Russell stressed
the crucial importance of involving the parties in decisions as
to what the composition of the House should be.
Dr Russell said: "You have to get people from the party groups
to sit down and agree between them what the party balance should
be and what size the cap should be. If you can get that agreed,
I think the party groups will be able to sort it out for themselves,
encouraging people to go."
81. Agreement on how to determine the relative
numerical strengths of the different party groups in the Lords
would not only be a valuable end in itself, it would also pave
the way for the implementation of the majority of the other small-scale
reforms we have discussed in this Report. Of all the issues we
have discussed it has the most potential to have a positive impact
on the size of the House. Inevitably, it is also the most contentious.
We have referred in this Report to various suggestions as to how
this could be approached. However, the reality is that it is up
to the party groups to engage in dialogue with a view to reaching
an agreement on the next step forward. We recommend that in
its response to this Report, the Government sets out its position
on this issue. We also encourage the individual party groups and
Cross-benchers to provide their views in writing to us with a
view to making progress on this issue before the next General
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