Buried amidst last week’s fall-out from the Queen’s Speech and the elections was the fourth report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House. The committee, established in 2016 by Lord Fowler, until recently Speaker of the House of Lords, and chaired by Lord Burns, was tasked with identifying practical and politically viable options to reduce the size of the House.
The Burns report
In its report of October 2017, the committee recommended five key reforms:
- The number of peers should be capped at 600;
- A two out, one in system should be adopted voluntarily;
- Each group in the Lords should achieve the same reduction as a percentage of their membership;
- 15-year non-renewable fixed term limits should be introduced for peers;
- Any political appointments should be linked to election results.
These recommendations were designed to be incremental and achievable without legislation – meaning they would only be met through voluntary action by parties and Lords groupings, and restraint on behalf of the prime minister in the number of new appointments. The committee also specifically chose not to consider the issue of hereditary peers in its original report.
Where are we now?
Since 2017, the committee has reported almost every year on the progress made in achieving the targets it set. In its latest report, the committee found that departures from the House of Lords are on track with its original recommendations – 119 members have left the Lords, matching exactly the benchmark for this stage. Compared with the benchmark, slightly fewer Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers left the House, while slightly more Labour and Crossbenchers did, though the differences are not particularly significant.
Departures from the House of Lords and comparison with benchmarks in the original 2017 report
||Total departures since 8 June 2017
||Benchmark for this stage
||Difference actual departures/benchmark
But the committee found that recent appointments to the House have ‘undone the progress’ made by the Lords and the previous Prime Minister in reducing its size. There have been 113 new appointments in the same period, nearly double the committee’s recommended limit of 60, partly because ‘the current Prime Minister has not shown the same restraint as his predecessor.’ This has led the committee to ‘fear that the sheer rate of new appointments presages a return to the inexorable upward path in the size of the House.’ Indeed, we have already seen the House swell to over 800 peers earlier this year.
Appointments/elections to the House of Lords and comparison with benchmarks in the original 2017 report
||Benchmark for this stage
||Difference actual entries/benchmark
NB: these figures do not include the appointments made in the ‘legacy list’ of May 2018. For more see the committee’s report.
While the differences in departures from the House did not differ significantly among groups, there are considerable differences between appointments/elections to the House and the benchmark set for this stage by the committee. Considerably more Conservative peers entered the House than set out in the benchmark (an additional 33 Conservative peers) and an extra 15 Crossbench peers and eight others entered the House than had been envisioned in the committee’s 2017 report. Indeed, the committee notes its concern ‘that party nominations over the four years have been overwhelmingly Conservative and have fallen well short of our proposal for sharing appointments to reflect the result of General Elections.’
The committee also flag how Crossbenchers have been increasingly appointed by the Prime Minister in recent years, rather than the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC), and express concern at how the current Prime Minister ‘has taken this a step further a new practice of appointing “non-affiliated” peers, who tend to be political figures (and thus unsuitable for the Crossbenches) who have for whatever reason had a parting of ways with their party.’
In stark contrast to its previous recommendations, designed to be implemented without legislation over a 10+ year horizon, the Speaker’s committee concluded in its latest report that the voluntary approach suggested thus far is no longer suitable, as it is too vulnerable to political events, such as general elections and changes of prime minister, which lead to new peers being appointed.
The committee’s priority is now for the binding cap to be implemented and thus reduce the number of peers to 600 by the end of this parliament. Once this is achieved, party leaders will be incentivised to only nominate members who will be ‘working peers’ (perhaps allowing for the introduction of peerages that do not entail membership of the House, but would allow for individuals to receive an honour).
Further, the committee recommended that there should be a limit of 10 prime ministerial appointments to the Crossbenches every five years (rather than every parliament) and that HOLAC should be the primary source of nominations to the Crossbenches.
Finally and most significantly given its previous neglect of this issue, the committee recommended that hereditary peer by-elections be stopped, while acknowledging this would require legislation, and highlighted how the ‘preponderance’ of Conservative and Crossbench peers amongst hereditaries ‘distorts the balance of the House’. A situation which would be exacerbated in a smaller House of 600 members.
But while the committee is optimistic about ‘small, incremental and consensual changes’ being the ‘surest route to success’, experience seems to tell us that this will be insufficient to achieving either short- or long-term change. As I have argued before, piecemeal, incremental reform of the House of Lords is no longer an option – the voluntary approach has failed, as the committee itself has admitted. What is needed now is decisive action, legislation and, most importantly, cross-party political willingness to address not only the issues of the size of the House of Lords and the anachronistic hereditary peer by-elections, but ultimately its democratic legitimacy and accountability.
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