Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Dr Alan Renwick, Reader in Comparative Politics, University of Reading

This submission has three sections: the first sets out the most pressing problems in the current structure of the House of Lords; the second offers suggestions on problems that appear easy to solve; the third offers suggestions on problems where the proposals may be more contentious. The key proposals are that members of the House of Lords should be appointed for fixed terms of three parliaments and that each round of appointments should reflect the spread of votes across the parties at the last general election.

The proposals set out here are based in my research into House of Lords reform. My analysis of the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, House of Lords Reform: A Briefing Paper was published by the Political Studies Association in 2011. I subsequently appeared twice before the Joint Committee that analysed that draft Bill and submitted two sets of written evidence.

Problems with the Status Quo

The first step in evaluating possible reforms to the House of Lords is to identify the weaknesses in the status quo that ought to be addressed. Given that no elected component will be introduced in the foreseeable future and that the bishops will not be removed, the following problems with the status quo are the most pressing:

1.The present chamber is too large. There is general consensus on this point among peers and academics. Meg Russell has described the difficulties that are caused in considerable depth. This is essentially a practical problem rather than one of principle, though the cost of running such a large chamber is a matter of legitimate concern unless it generates commensurable benefits.

2.The composition of the chamber can be substantially altered at the whim of the serving prime minister. The lack of any principles for determining the relative strengths of the different parties leaves the prime minister great scope to change those strengths to his or her own advantage. While prime ministers are currently somewhat constrained by the perception that the House is full, this constraint would be weakened if the first point, above, were successfully addressed. This problem is one of principle: it is wrong for the prime minister to have such great power over the composition of one of the chambers of Parliament.

3.The survival of a hereditary element cannot be defended. The House of Lords has moved since 1958 from a chamber based largely on birth to a chamber based largely on merit. The meritocratic principle is sound as a basis for choosing people who make decisions that affect citizens’ everyday lives. The principle of heredity is not.

4.There is no mechanism for holding members of the House of Lords to account. As I argued in my submission to the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, the absence of electoral accountability for members of the House of Lords can be defended, given that the Lords is a revising rather than a governing chamber: the preservation of independent-mindedness is important. Still, non-accountability can be taken too far, particularly where members fail to contribute in any significant way to the work of the House. This problem will become more acute if principles of composition are developed in response to point (2) above: an absentee member will then be denying his or her party its fair share of representation.

5.The Appointments Commission, while doing good work, lacks a statutory basis. At least in theory, this creates the danger that it might be interfered with by an unchecked prime minister.

Solving the Easier Problems

The third, fourth, and fifth of these problems can be addressed quite straightforwardly through reforms that ought not to be controversial:

Recommendation 1. Elections to replace hereditary peers should be discontinued. Advocates of major reform should not insist that the hereditary peers be retained until a complete overhaul of the chamber’s composition occurs: Lords reform is only ever going to happen through small steps. Hereditary peers of individual distinction may, of course, still be appointed as life peers.

Recommendation 2. A mechanism for removing absentee peers should be introduced. Care should be taken in defining “absentee peers” to reflect the variety of ways in which members may serve the chamber. A check might be conducted at the end of each parliament and those peers who have been persistently absent should (unless there have been transitory mitigating circumstances) be removed.

Recommendation 3. The Appointments Commission should be placed on a statutory footing. As discussed further below, I do not see any reason to change the role of the Appointments Commission.

Solving the Harder Problems

Solutions to the first and second problems may be a little more contentious but ought nevertheless to be attainable. Beyond the points already discussed, the Committee has set out the following options in its call for submissions:

Option 1: a moratorium on the appointment of new peers;

Option 2: the introduction of a retirement age for new peers;

Option 3: the introduction of a fixed term for new peers;

Option 4: the introduction of principles for determining the relative numerical strengths of the different parties.

I suggest that Options 1 and 2 would not be effective:

Recommendation 4. A moratorium on appointments should not be introduced. In order to bring numbers down to sensible levels, the moratorium would need to be applied for an extended number of years. According to the Parliament website, 21 peers died during 2012. There are currently 763 peers (excluding those disqualified or on leave of absence). To bring the membership down to 500 (which many would say is still too many) by moratorium alone would thus take in the order of twelve or thirteen years. The chamber would be starved of fresh blood for far too long. Furthermore, the problem of ever-rising numbers would only return once the moratorium was lifted.

Recommendation 5. A retirement age should not be introduced. While this could (depending on the age chosen) have a substantial effect on numbers, it would not permit any precise control over party balance. Party leaders would be given an incentive to appoint young members who could exert influence for many years. While there is much to be said for having larger numbers of younger members, this should be done rationally rather than in response to perverse incentives.

By contrast, the combination of Options 3 and 4 would be effective:

Recommendation 6. A fixed term should be introduced. A fixed term would allow the size of the chamber to be set and principles of partisan balance to be implemented. Multiple reports—including the Wakeham report in 2000, the Breaking the Deadlock proposals produced by Kenneth Clarke, Robin Cook Paul Tyler, Tony Wright, and Sir George Young in 2005, the 2007 White Paper, the 2008 White Paper, and the 2011 White Paper and Draft Bill—have proposed a term of three parliaments (extended in the case of a very short parliament). It would be sensible to build upon this established consensus.

Recommendation 7. Appointments should be made at the beginning of each parliament in proportion to the votes won by the parties at the most recent general election. Another principle underlying all recent reform proposals and apparently accepted on all sides is that no party should have a majority in the House of Lords. The best way of ensuring that—as, again, has been accepted in all the mainstream parties—is by applying the principle of proportionality. Even if a party won a majority of the vote at one general election (something that has not happened since before the Second World War), proportional allocation over three elections would almost certainly deny it a majority in the second chamber. The viable alternatives to this allocation mechanism can all be discarded:

allocation according to seats (rather than votes) won at the last general election would often give one party a majority (at least among partisan members): the Conservatives, for example, would have had a majority among partisan members throughout the period from 1974 to 2001; Labour would have had a majority since 2001;

allocation according to votes cast at the last European Parliament election might be favoured by advocates of proportional electoral systems; but many more votes cast in European Parliament elections than in Westminster elections are protest votes; linkage to the European Parliament could be expected to weaken the second chamber’s legitimacy; and

allocation according to votes cast in local council elections would create many complexities given the patchwork of different forms of local government across the country and the fact that even major parties do not contest all council seats.

Some details of this proposal do need to be considered carefully:

Crossbenchers appointed by the Appointments Commission would presumably still make up around 20% of the chamber, so proportional allocation among parties would be applied to the remaining 80%.

Attention would need to be given to whether thresholds ought to be applied for inclusion in the proportional allocation. One option would be to introduce a threshold (of, perhaps 3 or 4%) across the whole country. This would exclude minor parties, but would also exclude parties that are important only in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, which is unacceptable. A second option would be to apply regional thresholds, though this might lead to a perception of regional representation that some would find objectionable. A third option would be to include in the allocation only parties that have won at least one seat in the House of Commons. This would be closest to British tradition, though it would introduce an element of randomness to the application of the proportionality principle.

Introducing a system such as the one proposed here would create something akin to a closed-list electoral system (but without the election). Questions might therefore be asked about whether procedures for determining who is appointed ought to be opened up. I suggest, however, that allowing a gradual evolution of practice would be preferable to any immediate change:

Recommendation 8. The role of the Appointments Commission in vetting the appointment of partisan peers should not be changed. One option would be to give a stronger role to an independent commission, such as the Appointments Commission, in deciding who should fill partisan as well as crossbench positions. This would, however, violate the independence of the parties.

Recommendation 9. Parties’ selection of their own representatives should not be subject to additional regulation. It may be that, over time, calls would emerge within parties for transparent procedures for nominating members of the House of Lords. But change should best occur by evolution, so any such change should be allowed to happen from the bottom up, not forced from the top down.

26 March 2013

Prepared 16th October 2013