Government Response to the Committee’s Thirteenth report: A smaller House of Lords: The report of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House

Twelfth Special Report

1.On 19 November 2018, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published its thirteenth report of session 2017–19, A smaller House of Lords: The Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House. The Government’s Response was received on 11 January 2019. After considering the Government’s response the Committee wrote to the Minister for the Constitution, Chloe Smith MP, on 21 January 2019 asking for a response to be provided to all of the Committee’s recommendations and for more details to be provided as to how the Government is currently considering the issues raised by this Committee and the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House of Lords, and what the timescale is for these issues to be considered. The Minister wrote back to the Committee on 20 February 2019. These letters are appended to this Report.

2.The Government made clear in its letter that comprehensive reform is not a priority in the current Parliament. The letter also sets out that proposals such as capping the size of the House and introducing Party ratios for appointments based on the previous general election results is not a priority and it does not have a process in place to consider such proposals. The Government’s view set out in the letter is clear, and understandable given the current number of immediately pressing issues it has to deal with. However, the Committee maintains that the Burns Report recommendations represents “a minimum incremental reform” and regards this as unfinished business that will need to be addressed.

Appendix 1: Government Response

The Government is grateful to the Committee for its report. As the Committee notes, the House of Lords, as the Second Chamber of Parliament, fulfils a vital complementary role to that of the House of Commons. Whilst primacy rightly sits with the elected House of Commons, in scrutinising legislation, the House of Lords can, and does, ask the Commons to think again. Its select committees, which again complement, rather than duplicate the Commons, hold the Government to account in a number of specific and detailed areas. It is therefore crucial that the House of Lords functions effectively, and the issue of its size is one of a number of factors which affects its ability to do so. It is for that reason that the Prime Minister welcomed the thorough and carefully considered work of the Lord Speaker’s committee, under the Chairmanship of Lord Burns, as a serious attempt to tackle the challenge presented to them.The Government also joins the Lord Speaker in welcoming the good progress so far made by the House of Lords to reduce its size, as set out in the follow-up report from the Lord Speaker’s committee. We remain willing to engage with all sides of the House to build on this progress.

Recommendation: There is widespread agreement that addressing the size of the Chamber is now an indispensable imperative, and that this has become the “unarguable next step” in the proven process of incremental Lords reform. There are serious concerns that the House of Lords’ growing size and cost has a direct impact on the Chamber’s ability to conduct its important functions. While more far reaching reforms should continue to be discussed, reaching agreement has always been difficult. Addressing the size of the House of Lords is an urgent political priority which must not be delayed. (Paragraph 24)

Response: As the Committee points out, plans for comprehensive reform of the House of Lords have not attracted consensus and past attempts have proved difficult to deliver. Given the present challenges faced by the UK, this Government has been consistent in its view that comprehensive reform is not a priority for this Parliament. We have focussed instead on working constructively with Peers where there appears to be consensus within the House of Lords to enable them to achieve smaller, but equally important, reforms to reduce the size of the House and ensure that the House continues to work effectively. This has included the option of retiring, which almost 90 Peers have already chosen to do since 2014. Securing that key legislative step has underpinned all the steps recommended by the Lord Speaker’s committee.

We take the opportunity presented by your report to reiterate the welcome the Prime Minister gave to the important work undertaken by the Lord Speaker’s committee. The Prime Minister, in her letter to the Lord Speaker of 20 February committed to do her bit in addressing the size of the House by continuing the restrained approach she has taken so far to appointments. She has committed to make future appointments fairly across the House, bearing in mind the results of the last general election and the leadership shown by each party in terms of increasing the number of retirements.

The Prime Minister’s letter also welcomes the acknowledgement and commitment by the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders that more retirements will be required from their ranks. In his response welcoming the Prime Minister’s letter, the Lord Speaker also recognised the responsibility of the other political leaders in fulfilling their role in reducing numbers.1

It should be noted that of the four main groups in the House, the only group significantly behind their target of reducing the number of peers leaving the House as suggested in the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee are the Liberal Democrats, who are currently below the number that would be required to sustain the progress to date.2 Those party groups who are playing their part in efforts to reduce the size of the House through retirements should not be unduly penalised in terms of their relative representation in the House because they are reducing their numbers in line with the recommended targets set out by the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee.

We therefore believe that a combination of restraint regarding future appointments and sustained efforts from all parties and those not affiliated to a party to increase the number of retirements will represent the most effective short-term approach to addressing concerns about the size of the House.

Recommendation: The effect of implementing the Burns Report recommendations is the very minimum reform which should be contemplated. We support the objective of reducing the size of the House of Lords and capping the Chamber’s size at a maximum of 600 members, but we recommend that this be achieved more quickly that the rate set out in the Burns Report. We recognise that gaining consent for this reform depends upon avoiding unreasonable pressure on existing members to retire, but we urge the leaders of the party groups in the House of Lords to agree to strict retirement targets. We hope a faster rate of retirements is possible while maintaining the equal contribution basis outlined in the Burns report. (Paragraph 32)

Response: The Government agrees with the Committee that the objectives of the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee to reduce the size of the House should be supported. The follow-up report published by the Lord Speaker’s committee on 24 October tracked the progress made in reducing the size of the House since the proposals were made. Progress is encouraging and shows that the numbers leaving the House are greater than the Lord Speaker’s committee anticipated, with half of the total retirements in the first year coming from the Conservative benches. Combined with the continued restraint shown by the Prime Minister, and assuming the other parties show equal leadership in encouraging retirements at the appropriate time, the reduction in the size of the House is on a promising trajectory.

Recommendation: It is important that the Prime Minister commits to the proposed cap and to limiting appointments in line with the proposed appointment formula. The adoption of this formula is a vital aspect of the proposals to reduce the size of the House. This system would make appointment of peers more transparent and set out clearly, as called for by our predecessor committees over many years, a constitutional convention that appointments to the House of Lords should reflect the results of the most recent general election. (Paragraph 35)

Response: The Prime Minister responded to the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee by way of a letter to the Lord Speaker on 20 February 2018. In that letter, the Prime Minister committed to allocating future appointments fairly, bearing in mind the results of the last general election and the leadership shown by each party in terms of retirements. The Government does not however accept the Committee’s recommendation that the Prime Minister must now commit to a specific cap on numbers, and absolutely limiting appointments in line with the formula proposed.

As the Prime Minister outlined in her letter, some of the recommendations of the Lord Speaker’s committee represent short-term, practical steps that can be implemented straight away. Fixing the size of the House of Lords, and the ratios of party strengths within it, would be a long-term, significant change to the composition, character and functions of the Lords, and therefore needs careful consideration and wider engagement, so as not to risk unintended consequences, in particular to the fundamental relationship between the Lords and the elected House.

The Government notes that the Committee has also stated that caution should be applied in relation to the recommendation of the Lord Speaker’s committee that the term of new members of the House of Lords should be limited to 15 years. This would have a significant impact on the composition, character and functions of the House of Lords and as the Committee notes, such changes could have unintended consequences.

Recommendation: In order to provide confidence in the Prime Minister’s commitment to the proposed cap and limiting of appointments, this should also be set out in the Cabinet Manual. (Paragraph 36)

Response: The Prime Minister’s commitment has been made publicly. She has adhered to it and it speaks for itself. The Lords Speaker’s Committee calculated that 75 appointments per Parliament (15 per year) would allow for their targeted reduction in overall numbers to be reached. In the period between the June 2017 election and the publication of the Lord Speaker’s Committee report in October 2018, the Committee calculated that the Prime Minister had made just 12 eligible appointments. In addition, the annual target for the number of Peers departing has been exceeded, primarily because of the number of retirements from amongst Peers on the Government benches, which far exceeds the retirements from any other party. The Cabinet Manual sets out in one place the rules and procedures under which Government operates, including the relevant statutory framework and long-established conventions. It is not intended to be the source of any rule or to set out the specific commitments of a particular Government.

Recommendation: We welcome the proposals in the Burns Report to strengthen the role of the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) in ensuring nominees are made aware of what being active member of the House of Lords entails. We recommend that all political parties and HOLAC provide a written statement of nomination setting out why a person is being nominated for a peerage and how this qualifies them to contribute to the House of Lords. The person nominated should also make a written statement prior to the nomination being approved, setting out how they intend to contribute to the work of the House of Lords, in particular to the scrutiny of Bills and other legislation, and in general to the work of the Committees of the House. This statement would be published when the peerage is announced. (Paragraph 39)

Recommendation: The current membership of the House of Lords, as Lord Bew pointed out to us, in many areas does not reflect the country which it serves. While changes have started to be put in place, it is important that new appointments better reflect the make-up of the UK, in areas such as gender, region, ethnicity and religion. We recommend that HOLAC be given the role of monitoring and reporting on the diversity of nominees and peers for all groups. It should publish recommendations identifying which groups or communities require better representation, which should be aimed particularly at the political parties responsible for the majority of nominations. (Paragraph 40)

Response: The Committee raises important concerns about transparency and the lack of diversity in the House. The Government will work with the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission to consider its future role and functions, in the light of both the recommendations made in the Committee’s report and those contained in the report by the Lord Speaker’s Committee.

2 Since October 2014 a total of 91 Peers have retired, of which 31 were Conservatives (34.1%), 15 were Labour (16.5%), 11 were Liberal Democrats (12.1%) and 34 were Crossbenchers/non-affiliated/DUP (37.4%)

Published: 5 March 2019