Cameron Crams More Peers into the House of Lords

Last week, David Cameron announced 22 new appointments to the House of Lords. This means that the upper house will now have an astonishing 796 members (and that figure doesn’t include the 54 peers who have taken a leave of absence or are otherwise temporarily disqualified from sitting).

Strange as it may seem, this isn’t a record. Indeed, from a historical perspective, the total membership of the House isn’t all that large: prior to the House of Lords Act 1999, it had over 1,213 members. But back then, the House of Lords was a sleepy chamber dominated by hereditary peers who weren’t expected to attend regularly. Nowadays, most members of the House are ‘working peers’ who are appointed on the understanding that they will actively contribute.

At this rate, it won't be long before the House of Lords has to meet outdoors. Photo by Poulsen (The Queenslander, 9 September 1899, p. 525) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

At this rate, it won’t be long before the House of Lords has to meet outdoors. Photo by Poulsen (The Queenslander, 9 September 1899, p. 525) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The House of Lords might not be as large as it was in 1999, but its increasing growth is still a cause for concern. The chamber only seats around 400 people, and the lack of space is often painfully obvious during popular events like Question Time. The increased numbers also threaten the House’s cherished tradition of self-regulation. Unlike her counterpart in the Commons, the Lord Speaker does not moderate the debates. Instead, peers rely on a communal sense of fair play to conduct their business, but it’s difficult to maintain decorum when you have 400+ people crowding the benches.

The root cause of the problem is that the Prime Minister is effectively free to appoint whomever he pleases to the House of Lords. To make matters worse, the present government is making appointments based on the proportion of the vote in the last election.1 This sounds inoffensive enough until you realize that, because peers serve for life, a future government will have to make a massive number of appointments to re-balance the House (the Electoral Reform Society has suggested that the House could swell to 2,000 peers if Labour wins next year and continues to make proportional appointments).

The appointment process needs to be overhauled immediately. At the absolute minimum, life tenure should be abolished and replaced with a lengthy-but-definite term (for example, 10 years). This would increase turnover and arrest the House’s mushrooming growth. Ideally, the Prime Minister’s power of patronage would also be trammeled, but that might be more difficult. An annual limit on the number of peerages would be the most straightforward option, but the government’s need for ministers in the Lords might complicate matters. Unfortunately, the fitful nature of Lords reform suggests that even modest proposals like these will have a hard time making it onto the statute book.

NOTES

1. Cabinet Office, “The Coalition: our programme for government” (May 2010), 27.

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2 Responses to Cameron Crams More Peers into the House of Lords

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Changing from life tenure to a limited tenure (10 years) in the Lords is a major constitutional change. It also does not deal with representation by the crossbenchers or the “people’s peers” appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. A more sensible approach would be to restrict voting rights in the Lords, while retaining the right to speak for all peers. In the same way that hereditary peers vote to replace members of their “group” in the Lords to maintain the number at 92, peers taking a party whip could vote at the beginning of each parliament for members of their group who would have the right to vote, the number of voting peers in each group being proportional to the votes cast in the General Election. This would achieve the desired result with no need to create an exponentially increasing number of peers. In time, the size of the Lords could be reduced by not replacing all the life peers who die or retire as there would be no disadvantage to a party as long as it has more peers than voting places.

    • jasonloch says:

      Although I didn’t mention it in my post, I assumed that crossbenchers would continue to be chosen in much the same way as they are now, and the House of Lords Appointments Commission would continue to make recommendations for People’s Peers. The only difference is that they would only serve for a limited period of time.

      But I think you’ve presented a very interesting idea, and it certainly has a lot to commend it. As you pointed out, it would make it easier to ensure proportionality without letting membership mushroom out of control, and it would allow the House to benefit from the expertise of the entire body of the peerage.

      That being said, I do have some concerns. I worry that having elections every Parliament might reduce peers’ independence since a peer could have to toe the party line in order to be re-elected. Unless the power to create new life peers was somehow restricted, party leaders might try to stack the deck by creating a bunch of obedient peers who are likely to vote for tractable candidates.

      I also fear that having two types of membership might make it harder to obtain talented new peers. There would undoubtedly be some (perhaps many) peers who never get the right to vote, and I don’t know if speaking rights alone would be very attractive. On a related note, I think that having a ‘two-speed’ House of Lords has the potential to complicate the expenses issue even more. While it’s certainly true that you don’t necessarily have to vote to be an effective parliamentarian, I don’t know how the public would react to paying allowances to peers who can’t vote. And if you take away their allowances, well, then that will only discourage their participation even more.

      My final concern is that this might be a bigger change to the constitution than it first appears. Like term limits, it also breaks with the tradition of letting peers enjoy the full rights of the peerage for life. However, it also undermines the idea that, within the House, all peers are equal.

      Thank you so much for your comment; I really appreciate your contribution!

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