David Cameron Creates 45 New Peers

The Dissolution Honours List for the last Parliament has finally been announced, and it includes 45 new peerages, which will bring the total number of peers in the House of Lords to 826.

With 26 new peers, the Conservatives will be the main beneficiaries of this new influx. Their former coalition partners the Liberal Democrats will get 11 peers, and Labour will get eight. Just over half (24) of the new peers are coming from the Commons, including William Hague, Alan Beith, and Alistair Darling. On the surface, this is a ‘dog bites man’ kind of story. Party leaders have been using the Dissolution Honours List to reward party stalwarts for years. But the practice of sending large tranches of MPs to the Lords has becoming increasingly problematic.

In theory, the House of Lords is a chamber of experts that provides sober scrutiny of legislation. It’s supposed to be a house of amateurs, and that’s a good thing. Peers can be a valuable counterweight to professional politicians who read PPE at Oxbridge, did a stint as a special adviser, and then entered the Commons after being parachuted into a safe seat. But the more MPs you send upstairs to the Lords, the more the House becomes a chamber of professional politicians.

On paper, political peers are still a minority in the Lords. According to Parliament’s website, there are currently 169 peers who are former MPs, which comes out to roughly 22% of the total House.[1] But since they are more likely to participate in the House’s work on a day-to-day basis, they often end up punching above their weight.

Despite the lip service paid to the importance of the Crossbenchers, new appointments to the Lords are overwhelmingly political. Before this latest batch, Cameron had created 196 peers since he took office in May 2010.[2] Only eight of these were non-partisan appointments suggested by the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission. With a few exceptions,[3] the rest have all taken a party whip, and the vast majority have been appointed to serve as ‘lobby fodder.’

I still support an appointed House of Lords, but it shouldn’t be a retirement home for superannuated politicians or a club for wealthy donors, nor should it be able to grow ad infinitum. A good first step would be to place limits on the Crown’s power to create new peerages. There could be an annual cap on the number of new peerages along with a statutory requirement that a certain percentage of new peers must be non-partisan or have expertise of some kind. Establishing limited terms of service—say 10 years–for new peers also seems like a good idea. Life tenure has its merits, but it’s also partially to blame for the burgeoning size of the House. Limited terms could help ensure a steady influx of new talent without increasing the overall size of the House.

Unfortunately, the Government seems relatively content with the status quo, though that might change if Lib Dem and Labour peers cause too much trouble. This means that it will likely be up to backbench peers and MPs to try to bring about reform through private members’ bills. While these traditionally face a difficult path onto the statute book, it’s important to remember that the most recent reforms to the House of Lords came about through backbench legislation.[4] It’s not a perfect solution, but at this point it seems like the best chance of avoiding the spectacle of a 1,000-member chamber.

NOTES

[1] A recent report by the Electoral Reform Society estimates that 34% of peers once worked in politics, but it’s not clear how they arrived at this figure. They may have included peers who worked in local government in their tally of political peers, or they may have used an even more expansive definition of “working in politics.” The Society campaigns for an elected House of Lords, and the whole point of their report is to persuade people that the status quo is flawed. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a pressure group has presented slanted statistics to support their argument!

[2] With this latest batch, he has now surpassed the 216 peers created by Margaret Thatcher over 11 years in government. But Tony Blair still holds the record for creating the largest number of life peerages (386).

[3] The exceptions have generally been former officeholders who are expected to remain politically neutral because of their previous roles (e.g., Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet Secretary).

[4] The House of Lords Reform Act 2014 was initially introduced by Dan Byles MP while the House of Lords (Exclusion and Suspension) Act 2015 was initially introduced by Baroness Hayman.

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One Response to David Cameron Creates 45 New Peers

  1. Pingback: Why I Support An Appointed House of Lords | A Venerable Puzzle

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