What Can Be Done About The Size Of The House of Lords?

The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, has come under some fire for expressing concern over Boris Johnson’s decision to appoint a new batch of 16 peers. While some have questioned the propriety of his intervention, he was right to raise the alarm over the size of the House of Lords.    

The Upper House currently has 792 members. Once the latest batch of peers has taken their seats on the red benches, that figure will rise to 808 (it’ll be 832 if you count the 24 peers who are currently on leave of absence or otherwise disqualified from sitting). Even though many peers aren’t full-time legislators and don’t attend regularly (and this is a feature, not a bug!), the burgeoning size of the House still presents challenges when the chamber can only physically accommodate around 400. And as the size of the House grows, so does its cost to the taxpayer. Peers aren’t paid a salary, but they are eligible to receive a daily allowance and reimbursement for certain travel expenses.[1]

Right now, a Prime Minister can create as many peers as they like. The House of Lords Appointments Commission does vet nominees, but it can’t prevent the Prime Minister from submitting someone’s name to the Queen.[2] And although the Upper House is supposed to be a forum where experts and others from outside the professional political class help improve legislation, a substantial number of appointments tend to be ex-MPs. Key party donors also show up on the red benches with some regularity, leading to accusations of cronyism (though the Opposition tends forget everything it said about cronyism upon entering No. 10!).

Because a seat in the Lords is for life, appointments can have a snowball effect. Tony Blair appointed a large number of Labour peers in order to overcome the Conservatives’ majority. When David Cameron presided over the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, he in turn appointed a large number of peers from both governing parties in order to rebalance the House, leading to a situation where the Lib Dems now have 88 peers but only 11 MPs. Although peers can now retire from the House, this is entirely optional.[3]

If current trends continue, it won’t be long before the House has 1,000 members (52 peers have been appointed under Boris Johnson alone). Even if every one of them is a dedicated and conscientious public servant, numbers like that undermine the House’s ability to do its job and damage its reputation. A chamber of unelected parliamentarians is only credible if it’s providing something the Commons cannot and it doesn’t seem like an extravagance.

The good news is that the size of the House can be addressed.[4] The bad news is that there isn’t a single silver bullet. Thankfully, the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House made several recommendations back in 2017 that are eminently practical:

  • The size of the House should be capped. The Committee suggested 600 members, and that seems like an acceptable number though there are cogent arguments for an even smaller House.
  • New peerages should be created on a ‘two-out, one-in’ basis until the House reaches its target size. This would be preferable to an outright moratorium on new appointments since it allows the House to benefit from new blood while still whittling down the overall membership. It also avoids the need to force sitting peers out of the House.
  • New members should serve a single 15-year term. Fifteen years is long enough to ensure a degree of continuity while preventing ossification. Limiting members to a single term also ensures that the Government can’t use the prospect of another term to try to influence peers’ behavior.
  • When filling vacancies during a Parliament, each party should be allocated a certain number of seats based on the average of their share of the seats in the Commons and their share of the overall vote following the most recent General Election. This has the benefit of allowing the House’s political composition to change over time without inflating the overall membership.

While the Lord Speaker’s Committee noted that these changes could be implemented without changing the law, it would be preferable to place them on a statutory footing. Trusting politicians to show restraint seems unwise as there’s a real prospect that these precepts would be cast aside the moment it was advantageous to do so. Enshrining them in statute ensures that everyone was on the same page.

As someone who has a lot of respect for the House of Lords, I hope Lord Fowler’s concerns don’t go unheeded. Reform isn’t a dirty word–putting the British constitution in aspic is just as problematic as tearing the whole thing down. Seizing the initiative and enacting smaller reforms can help ensure that the House remains an appointed chamber that provides a unique counterbalance to the Commons.     

[1] For a discussion of some of the issues surrounding Lords’ expenses, see this post.

[2] Indeed, Boris Johnson just recommended Peter Cruddas for a peerage over the Commission’s objections.

[3] Peers can also lose their seats for non-attendance.

[4] I won’t be getting into a discussion of why I support an appointed House over an elected one (for that, see this post). However, my support for an appointed House is predicated on the notion that the House is to remain a revising chamber that is subordinate to the Commons. If its role were to change (e.g., because Britain adopted a federal system), its members would almost certainly need to be elected.

This entry was posted in British Parliament and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.