Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Electoral Reform Society

The Electoral Reform Society was founded in 1884 and has over 100 years of experience and knowledge of democratic processes and institutions. As an independent campaigning organisation working for a better democracy in the UK we believe voters should be at the heart of British politics. The Society works to improve the health of our democracy and to empower and inform voters.

The Electoral Reform Society welcomes the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee inquiry into the next steps for Lords Reform but is concerned that by focusing on smaller scale changes to membership such reforms fail to address the main issue of democratic deficit. The first and most pressing issue for Lords reform is giving the Upper House democratic legitimacy.

ERS believes in building a better democracy that gives a voice to citizens and in which politicians are held to account. A parliament in which the second chamber is populated exclusively with hereditary and religious elites and members appointed through political patronage, has no place in our democratic present or in its future.

However, the Society does agree that size is an important factor in the functioning of the Upper House and welcomes moves to look at this issue.

The current Upper House is grossly oversized and growing unstably as each incoming Prime Minister moves to restore party balance by increasing the number of peers. The Society believes that a smaller chamber is necessary to perform as an effective and efficient revising chamber.

Mechanisms for reducing the size of the House of Lords, including no longer replacing hereditary peers in the House of Lords when they die and measures to remove persistent non-attendees, may limit expansion slightly (as would a retirement age) but the bulk of new peerages arise out of the need to readjust party balance with incoming new governments. A moratorium would need to be in place for several elections to affect this but would be difficult to sustain with incoming governments naturally desiring a stronger voice in the Upper Chamber.

Fixed-term appointments for the Upper House have both benefits and disadvantages. Many of the benefits of term-limits only apply to elected representatives (such as militating against corruption and ensuring a more diverse group of people are elected to high office). However, the problems of high turnover and loss of experience would apply for appointed as well as elected representatives and, if term limits were only applied to new peers, could create a two tier chamber. Election would provide a better resolution to the problem of peerages for life.

Apart from size, there are issues with the representativeness of the Upper House that are not addressed by the reforms discussed in this inquiry. The House of Lords, despite some modest progress in recent years, fails to represent the British public in a number of ways. The median age of the House of Lords was 68 years in February 2011 (18% of peers are under 60 and 16% of peers are aged over 80). Women’s presence in the Lords has only recently reached 22% and 14% of seats are effectively reserved for men (Bishops and hereditary peers). London and the South East are disproportionately represented in the House of Lords with over 40% of peers stating a London or South East address as their main residence.

The Society strongly believes that a reformed second chamber should fairly represent the diversity and regions within the UK. The reforms considered by this inquiry may address some of the age imbalances but will not help create a House that fully reflects the UK.

Establishing and codifying principles to determine the relative numerical strengths of the different party groups in the House of Lords would be a welcome addition but would not help deal with increases in size unless coupled with a process for resigning peers. More importantly, the independence of the Upper Chamber and the balance between party and crossbench 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.

Of the 117 new members of the House of Lords appointed since May 2010, half are either former MPs or former local Councillors. A further one in five are former special advisors, party employees or executives (former party Treasurers, Committee Chairs, Directors). Since 1997, 29% of those granted peerages were formerly MPs or MEPs. Those who have gained their position through party appointment are generally more active, regular attendees. For peers who have been appointed by parties to boost the respective parties’ strengths in the Lords, there is an expectation of regular attendance. 70% of the whole House currently takes a political whip. Principles determining party strength should therefore also take into consideration the balance between party and independent peers.

Whilst the reforms addressed by this inquiry may help reduce the size of the chamber and prevent a large increase in the future, they do not come close to addressing all the democratic problems with the House of Lords and crucially do not touch the central and pressing problem of democratic legitimacy.

26 March 2013

Prepared 16th October 2013