This week the House of Lords hit an unenviable milestone – once again topping over 800 members following Boris Johnson’s latest round of appointments.
Some barriers are meant to be broken but having 800 members in our bloated second chamber is not one of them.
The news comes despite years of debate, suggestions, campaigns and proposals for reform, But now, in 2021, the size of the upper chamber is ever-increasing – and it shows no signs of stopping.
Calls for reform are everything but new. In October 2017, the report by the Lord’s Speaker Committee on the size of the House – the so-called Burns report – obtained some moderate success at capping numbers, with at-the-time Prime Minister Theresa May pledging herself to a “course of moderation” in making new appointments.
Back in December, the Lord Speaker Lord Fowler publicly announced his discontent in appointments procedures as May’s successor, Boris Johnson began to pack the chamber with a raft of new appointments. Commenting in the Guardian on the absurd numbers of the House Lord Fowler wrote “surely the torrent of new appointments has neither public nor political support. Is this what the public expects in the third decade of the 21st century?”
Lord Fowler is right to speak out as the situation has only worsened over the past year. With 59 new appointments since 2020, the House of Lords is now 200 members above its 2017 cross-party agreement of 600- making it the largest revising chamber in the world. The ‘two-out, one-in principle’ has been consistently disregarded in favour of unsupervised cronyism with the Government continuing to pack the chamber with political allies.
The latest round of appointments has also shone a light on structural deficiencies in the powers of the Appointments Commission – the body responsible for vetting any potential Lords appointment.
Any recommendation from the Commission can be overridden by the Prime Minister. The PM’s decision to override the Commission’s official advice on Peter Cruddas’ peerage, former Tory co-treasurer and donor, is yet another example of the marginal powers of the Commission and the almost unfettered power of patronage of the prime minister when it comes to lords appointments leading to accusations of political cronyism.
These concerns are not unfounded. Johnson’s first round of appointments included a few controversial choices, his younger brother Jo and the Russian-born newspaper magnate Evgeny Lebedev, whose father was a K.G.B. officer. It comes as no surprise that both peerages announcements have been made when Parliament had not been sitting, the first of which fell on one of the hottest days Britain had ever seen. The private party continues out of sight from the public eye, with little room for everyone – especially for those that would rather turn off the lights and send everyone home.
Flaws in appointments procedures are deficiencies in legitimacy and political accountability. An undemocratic body that has systematically been unable to reform itself, or to be reformed for that matter, can be a perilous threat to modern democracy. Not only is the House of Lord not democratically elected, but it is also defined by untransparent and unaccountable methods.
We need wholesale reform of the House of Lords. A smaller and fairly elected Senate of the nations and regions must take its place – representing people from all across the UK and democratically accountable to them.
The individual ingredients of size, composition and lack of accountability form a rotten recipe for the chamber’s absurd size. Pushing for a fairly elected, accountable and democratically legitimate upper chamber is thus more crucial than ever.
Federico Scolari is a Communications Placement Student at the ERS from the University of Nottingham.
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