A smaller House of Lords: The report of the Lord Speaker's committee on the size of the House Contents

2The problem of the size of the House

14.Following the debate in the House of Lords on 5 December 2016, a motion was agreed in the name of Lord Cormack that the House of Lords “size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved” and on 20 December 2016 the Lord Speaker announced the establishment of the Burns Committee.9

15.The creation of the Burns Committee reflected concern about the growth in the size of the House of Lords since 1999. As can be seen from table 2, the two longest serving Prime Ministers since 1999, Tony Blair and David Cameron who were in office for 14 out of the 19 years from 1997 to 2016, had appointment rates of 37.4 and 40.8 life peers per year respectively. In contrast, no Prime Minister before 1999 had an overall appointment rate above 25.

Table 2: Appointments since the creation of life peerages in 1957

Prime Minister


Total number of Appointments

Appointments per year 10

Harold Macmillan

January 1957 - October 1963



Sir Alec Douglas-Home

October 1963 - October 1964



Harold Wilson

October 1963 -June 1970



Edward Heath

June 1970 - March 1974



Harold Wilson

March 1974 - April 1976


40 (23.8 over two terms)

James Callaghan

April 1976 - May 1979



Margret Thatcher

May 1979 - November 1990



John Major

May 1990 - May 1997



Tony Blair

May 1997 - June 2007



Gordon Brown

June 2007 - May 2010



David Cameron

May 2010 - July 2016



Theresa May

July 2016 - Present



Source: Life Peerages Created Since 1958, House of Lords Library Briefing, 10 October 2018

16.Reports from committees, groups from both Houses of Parliament and external commentators have increasingly highlighted the issue of the size of the House of Lords.11 For example, in 2011, the UCL Constitution Unit produced the report House Full signed by senior cross-party figures. This called for a complete moratorium on appointments to the House of Lords until cross-party agreement could be reached on a more regulated system.12 In particular it identified how the unregulated distribution of seats between parties is a significant factor in encouraging successive prime ministers to continually increase the chamber’s size.

17.Our predecessor Committee’s inquiry into An Effective Second Chamber heard evidence of widespread agreement about how it may be possible to reduce the size of the House, and that the need to agree an overall cap on numbers was the most immediate issue.13 Two former Lord Speakers made this clear: Baroness D’Souza said “what we are at the moment deeply concerned about is the size of the House” and Baroness Hayman agreed saying “the most immediate reform to me is to put a cap on the size of the House.”14

18.One effect of growing size is that the House of Lords may find it more difficult to operate effectively. As Baroness D’Souza explained, “it interferes with the proper execution of our duties; it limits very often the time available for questions; it introduces a lot of time restraint, which means that the Government cannot often, or perhaps as well, be held to account”.15 A final concern is the effect of the House of Lords’ size on its cost, which is connected to its reputation, and consequently its effectiveness. Baroness D’Souza stated that “I think that the reason why it is so important is partly because of the perception, as I have repeatedly said, but also it is a huge burden on the taxpayer. The overall cost of peers’ expenses is £20.1 million per year; the average expenses is about £26,000 per peer. If you reduced that by a quarter, you would save £5 million”.16

The establishment of the Burns Committee

19.Following the Lord Speaker’s announcement that he was establishing the Burns Committee, the Deputy Lord Speaker, Lord McFall set out that the remit of the Committee was to explore:

methods by which the size of the House can be reduced, commensurate with its current role and functions … to examine practical and politically viable options that might lead to progress on this issue; analyse their implications; and set out any outstanding questions that may need to be answered in order for any proposals to command broad consensus across the House.17

20.This provided the Burns Committee with a clear task, or as Lord Burns described it, “an exam question”, to look into a mechanism for reducing the size of the House of Lords.18 Lord Burns explained that his Committee’s task was not to stray into the wider questions about reform, replacement or removal of the House of Lords. The Burns Committee was also “not trying to do anything with regard to the powers of the House of Lords”. Rather it sought to find an appropriate solution to the problem of size of the House for as long as it remains an appointed chamber.19

The problem of an ever-growing House

21.The “problem” the Burns Committee sought to address was not simply that the current size of the House of Lords was too big, but that there has been a long running tendency for the size of the House of Lords to increase.20 In evidence to us, Lord Burns said the Committee had come to the view that this problem if not addressed would result in “an inexorable rise in the size of the House of Lords”.21

22.As the Burns Report sets out, the UK is unique among democratic countries in having a legislative chamber where members are appointed for life with no cap on size.22 Lord Burns explained to us that where incoming governments do not have a majority in the House, they seek to change the balance in their favour. The only way they can do this is by increasing the total size of the House. This has created what Lord Burns described as a “treadmill, whereby numbers keep increasing, and increasing quite substantially”.23 The only exception to the increase in total size was the reduction that came about due to the exclusion of all but 92 hereditary peers through the House of Lords Act 1999. However, many of those who were removed were inactive peers, and as figure 1 demonstrates, while this one-time reduction decreased the overall size it did nothing to address the underlying factors that result in the trend for the Chamber’s size to continue to increase over time.

Source: Report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the House, 31 October 2017

23.The Burns Committee Report sets out that since 1997 appointments to the House of Lords averaged 35 per year, and the average life expectancy of new members was 25 years following the date of appointment. While the Report does not provide a time scale it suggests that at this rate of appointment and deaths, the number of life peers might “eventually settle at about 875” which together with 92 hereditary peers and 26 Bishops, would take the size of the House to nearly 1000.24 However, the Report also warns that increasing life expectancy, together with the growing number of members needed for incoming prime ministers to rebalance party composition, could well push this number substantially higher.25

24.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.

9 HL Deb, 5 December 2016, Col 500 [Lords Chamber]

10 Calculations made to closest full year, so should only be taken as indicative

11 Labour Peers’ Working Group, A Programme for Progress: The Future of the House of Lords and its Place in a Wider Constitution, (London: Labour Peers’ Working Group, 2014); Ninth Report of Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of Session 2013–14, House of Lords Reform: What Next?, HC251, 17 October 2013

12 Meg Russell, Lord Adonis, Graham Allen, Baroness Boothroyd, Lord Butler of Brockwell, Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, Lord Dholakia, Baroness D’Souza, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, Robert Hazell, Baroness Jay of Paddington, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Lord Norton of Louth, Donald Shell, Lord Steel of Aikwood, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, Baroness Williams of Crosby, Lord Woolf, Tony Wright., House Full: Time to Get a Grip on Lords Appointments, (London: Constitution Unit, 2011).

13 Sixteenth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of session 2016–2017, The work of the Committee during the 2015–17 Parliament, HC 1151, 2 May 2017, para 23

14 Oral Evidence taken on 31 January 2017, HC (2016–17) 811. Q2–3 [Baroness D’Souza, Baroness Hayman]

15 Oral Evidence taken on 31 January 2017, HC (2016–17) 811, Q2 [Baroness D’Souza]

16 Oral Evidence taken on 31 January 2017, HC (2016–17) 811, Q37 [Baroness D’Souza]

17 HL Debate, 20 December 2016, HLWS 386 [Written Statement]

18 Q6

19 Q4

21 Q4

23 Q4

Published: 19 November 2018