Back in December, the House of Lords voted unanimously to back the statement "that this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved".
It was a positive move, even if the rationale seemed slightly worrying – namely, staving off further and more substantial reform (see my blog for more on that).
On Tuesday we submitted our evidence to the new Lord Speaker's committee on the size of the House, the result of that motion.
A few weeks ago they launched their inquiry into how the size of the House of Lords might be reduced, and the public have until the 20th February to send in their submissions.
With one crucial caveat though – ‘The committee will not be considering the possibility of moving to an elected membership’.
That’s one big caveat.
And we’re concerned that it’s so substantial that it makes the inquiry look like a ‘stitch-up’. Indeed, we’ve said as much in our submission.
Here’s an extract:
“We are disappointed that the inquiry is not accepting submissions about whether Peers should be elected or appointed. As we have noted in the past, the size and composition of the Lords go hand in hand: it is oversized because there’s a constant incentive for PMs to pack it with party donors and advisers.
“Moreover, limiting the size alone does nothing to address the serious related deficits that go alongside its composition – among many, its lack of representativeness, the ‘cronyism’ it is perceived to embody, and its fundamental lack of accountability.
“This limitation risks creating a public perception that the inquiry is a ‘stitch-up’ – rather than it being a stepping stone to a more representative, modern upper house, very limited reform becomes an end point or ‘shut-off valve’.”
We do address some potential size-limiting reforms which fit within the Committee’s terms of reference. But refusing to accept submissions on the need for an elected Lords is a huge missed opportunity for real reform – and throws out the best way of addressing the size of the upper chamber.
Here are some reforms that can be made in the meantime though: the ‘stepping stones’ to further reform:
“The place of the Lords Spiritual is anachronistic. Iran is the only other legislature in the world which gives unelected clerics automatic representation in its legislature. The automatic inclusion of representatives of other faiths is an unacceptable solution due to the difficulty of deciding which faiths and denominations within faiths to include, how to include non-religious organisations, and the constantly changing demographics of the UK. The ERS would support an end to the automatic provision of legislative seats to Bishops.
“Ending the practice of holding so-called ‘by-elections’ for hereditary Peers is one reform which should be addressed urgently. Some of these by-elections have had an electorate of three or less, which is justifiably viewed – including, it must be noted, by many Peers – an embarrassment to our politics. But in particular for most of the public, it is simply astonishing that in the 21st century, a small cadre of hereditary Lords still decide who sits in our legislature.
“It is therefore a great shame that The House of Lords Act 1999 (Amendment) Bill 2016-17 was dropped by Peers at Committee Stage following the government’s refusal to support it. This was the most modest of Bills, proposed by Peers themselves to end an absurd anachronism. This issue must be revisited and tackled as soon as possible, for the sake of faith in our institutions and democracy.
“As a ‘stepping stone’ to further reform, the ERS would support a greater role for the House of Lords Appointments Commission – including power to interview witnesses, and greater representation of non-aligned citizens. However, it must be noted that neither of these modifications deal with the fundamental problems of the House and the appointments system per se, unless there was a significant rejection rate.
“Some consideration should be given to the ejection of those who do not attend for a whole session without being on leave of absence. This is of particular importance given that in the 2010-2015 parliament, £360,000 was claimed by Peers in years they failed to vote once, while in the 2014 Parliamentary session over £100,000 was claimed by Peers who did not vote at all.”
As we’ve said, there are things that can be done, and we do welcome the Lords debating cutting the numbers of members.
However, the democratic price to pay for the current situation is much larger than the financial or ‘perceptual’ one when it comes to our archaic upper house – something we don’t think this inquiry adequately addresses.
Nonetheless, if you have ideas on how to cut down the size of the Lords – or just want to challenge their decision to exclude submissions that discuss the need for an elected upper house, send in your submission using the online form here or email email@example.com. The consultation ends on February 20.
 Research by the ERS, August 2015 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11805861/Peers-claim-expenses-worth-360000-in-five-years-and-dont-bother-to-vote.html