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.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.