One of the unique features of our currently second chamber, apart from it being unelected and still partially based on inherited titles, is that its membership is huge.
At over 800 peers in total, not only does it dwarf all other second chambers around the world, but the number of unelected parliamentarians at Westminster significantly outnumber the elected ones.
As part of our new report Unfinished Business: Routes to an Elected Second Chamber we looked at chambers around the world. The closest comparable chamber in size is the French Senate which, at 348 members, is half the size of the House of Lords. But second chambers are typically much smaller – around 90 members is the average. The ratio of lower to upper house varies considerably, from Senates which are a fifth of the size of the lower chamber (in the US and in Poland) to France’s Senate which is 6/10th of the size of the National Assembly or Spain’s Senate which at 259 members is three quarters of the size of the Congress.
It is however highly unusual to have an upper chamber that is larger than a lower chamber.
Previous suggestions for reforming the Lords have suggested anywhere between 200 and 600 members. There is, however, a consensus that the House of Lords is too large and a smaller chamber would be more appropriate. The Lord Speaker’s Committee report, published in 2017, recommended capping the size of the Lords to 600 members (which would still leave it over 9/10ths of the size of the Commons). However, even on this modest proposal, the committee had to conclude by 2021 that ‘a voluntary approach is no longer working and any progress that has been made is being undone by too many appointments.’
Why is the House of Lords so large?
Part of the problem is that recent Prime Ministers have continued to appoint their friends and allies with little regard to the need for more peers. Only seven appointments have been made by the House of Lords Appointment Commission since 2016 during which time Prime Ministers have created 165 new peers. Fully or partly electing the Lords and removing unrestricted prime ministerial patronage would amongst other benefits, stabilize membership.
Smaller chambers also have the benefit of making debates more manageable and, combined with longer terms, can foster closer, more constructive working relationships between members.
How many peers do we actually need?
Which leaves the question of, how many peers do we actually need?
In 2008 a government white paper suggested that with daily average attendance around 400, a chamber of between 400 and 450 members would provide the same number of members to do the work of the Lords as there is at present. Daily attendance has not changed greatly since that report. The average attendance since 1999 is 417 members and from 2019 to 2023 the average has been 372.
Other considerations of size for an elected house would depend on whether the House is elected all at once or by partial replacement. Too small a number, if elected by halves or thirds, could impact on the diversity of representation and the proportionality of the results. We have previously modelled a 300-member house elected by STV in halves which maintains an appropriate level of proportionality.
Whichever route House of Lords reform takes, it is clear that many elected and indirectly elected chambers around the world manage to ensure political balance and diversity without appointment, whilst at the same time maintaining a chamber of a stable size.
You can find out more in our new report Unfinished Business: Routes to an Elected Second Chamber
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