The Burns Report – Where Are We One Year On?

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Posted on the 11th December 2018

Mariya Green reflects on some of the research undertaken during her placement at the ERS

The report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House of Lords – more commonly known as the ‘Burns report’ –  was published more than a year ago. But little change has taken place to date in reducing the size of our second chamber.

What is the Burns report and what did it recommend?

The Burns report recommended changes such as capping the size of the House Lords to 600 members and 15-year fixed terms for new peers. Crucial to these proposals is the objective of not only reducing the size of the chamber as it currently stands, but also addressing the overall tendency for its numbers to increase as appointments are made by different Prime Ministers and parties. As Lord Harries of Pentregarth said last year during a debate on the Burns report: ‘our present size brings us into disrepute. I feel embarrassed when someone enquires about our size’.

The report recommended the introduction of a ‘two-out-one-in’ system, which would allow a gradual reduction in the size of the House of Lords by ensuring that any new appointment could only be made once two existing members had left. In practice, however, this proposal means that it would take around 10 to 15 years before the 600 members cap is reached. What’s more, even when the size of the Lords is reduced to 600 members, it would still be the largest second chamber in the world.

Even when the size of the Lords is reduced to 600 members, it would still be the largest second chamber in the world Click To Tweet

Another proposal made in the Burns report is that, in order to reduce the size of the second chamber, the Prime Minister should only appoint new peers when there are vacancies and to do so in proportion to the results of the general election (with the exception of Crossbench peers, whose appointment would follow a different procedure).

In a letter to the Lord Speaker in February 2018, the Prime Minister seemed to appreciate her role in achieving this, stating that: ‘I intend to continue with the restraint I have exercised to date and, when making appointments, to allocate them fairly, bearing in mind the results of the last general elections’. But three months later, the Prime Minister backtracked and appointed 13 new peers to the House of Lords – amidst the Royal Wedding news.

Despite the Burns report’s recommendations, it seems that, in reality, reform is moving in the opposite direction. The Electoral Reform Society has calculated, for example, that, if the current rate of appointments continues, we are on track to having around 1,000 members in the Lords by 2031.

Where are we one year later?

First and foremost, despite the urgency of reform, the size of the House of Lords has actually increased in size over the past year. The appointment of 13 new peers, nine of which are Conservatives, flew in the face of the Burns report: the Prime Minister’s initial acceptance of the need to rebalance and reduce the size of Lords has been discarded, as there is clearly political value in being able to appoint members to the House of Lords.

To this end, a report by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) recommended that the Prime Minister make a ‘more concrete commitment’ to achieve the proposed cap and limit the number of appointments.

Furthermore, in order to ensure party balance, PACAC urged ‘leaders of the party groups in the House of Lords to agree to strict retirement targets’ and recognised that a faster rate of retirements may be necessary.

Secondly, a year later there are still two further problems associated with the composition of the House: it does not reflect the socioeconomic diversity of the country, and it fails to fulfil its role as a ‘nonpartisan chamber of experts’. The House of Lords is still overflowing with ex-politicians and ex-political staff. ERS analysis shows that 29% of peers are former MPs, MEPs or councillors, and a further 8% are former political staff and political activists. This raises the question: for a chamber that is supposedly more politically independent than the elected House of Commons, why are most of its members ex-politicians or political staff?

ERS analysis shows that 29% of peers are former MPs, MEPs or councillors, and a further 8% are former political staff and political activists Click To Tweet

It is clear that due to the non-binding nature of the report’s proposals there is still an unwillingness from politicians, and most importantly from the Prime Minister, to act on Lords reform.

Despite the ‘mild’ reform proposals contained in the Burns report, politicians are still unwilling to act against an already overflowing House of Lords, as shown by the current rate of appointments (already 13 in the year since the report was published). Even the recently published PACAC report has called for swifter progress on moving to a smaller House of Lords.

Frequent by-elections to replace hereditary peers (four in 2018), moreover, show just how anachronistic and unrepresentative the House of Lords is – one need only think of the fact that there is only one woman among the 211 people on the hereditary peerage register.

The Electoral Reform Society is, therefore, calling for a smaller, proportionally-elected Senate, which is truly representative of the socioeconomic and regional diversity of the country.

Mariya Green was a research placement student from the University of Nottingham.

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