Why we need more than piecemeal reform of the House of Lords

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 3rd February 2021

The House of Lords is back in the spotlight, with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying that replacing the House of Lords with an elected senate of the nations and regions should form part of a review of the UK’s constitutional settlement.

Our own new analysis last week revealed how the second chamber completely fails to represent the nations and regions of the UK. London, the South East and the East of England are hugely overrepresented in the Lords, with the proportion of peers from these three regions being 20 percentage points higher than their share of the UK population.

Apart from the South West (which is very slightly overrepresented in the Lords) and Scotland (whose proportion of peers in the Lords is equal to its share of the UK population), every other region and nation is underrepresented in the chamber, with the North West and Midlands losing out the most in representation. The combined share of peers from these three regions in the Lords is 16 percentage points lower than their share in the UK population.

A smaller chamber?

In the House of Lords itself, two debates on the size of the chamber took place last week, following oral questions by Lord Grocott (a Labour peer), on the government’s plans for limiting the size of the Lords, and Lord Balfe (a Conservative peer), on implementing the recommendations of the report by Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House (the so-called ‘Burns report’).

Both debates demonstrated the extent of cross-party support in the Lords for addressing the issue of its ever-increasing size. As Lord Grocott pointed out, the Prime Minister has appointed 59 new peers in the past 12 months, bringing the total number of peers to 833 members – continuing at this rate, the House could swell to close to a thousand peers by the end of a five-year parliament.

While a number of peers from across the House were supportive of limiting the number of appointments, there appears to be little scope for action in this regard – the best we can hope for is the re-establishment of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House to consider the matter once more.

There are two main obstacles to reform in this area: the current voluntary approach reliant on the government’s willingness to commit to restraint in the number of appointments, and the Lords’ own inability to reform itself, despite cross-party agreement, given its lack of democratic legitimacy and accountability.

Why voluntarily reducing numbers won’t work

Both debates highlighted how the voluntary approach, which is a cornerstone of the proposals contained in the 2017 report of the Lord Speaker’s committee, cannot work. While the Burns’ report was a commendable attempt at addressing one of the many flaws inherent in the House of Lords, namely its size, its recommendations were based on a voluntary approach by which – through a mix of peers retiring and prime ministerial restraint in appointments – the House would be slowly brought to a more manageable size of around 600 peers.

While there has been a not insignificant number of peers retiring, exercising restraint in the number of appointments is completely at the whim of the prime minister and, unfortunately, history provides us with countless examples of PMs appointing scores of party-friendly peers to the House when they are in power – an example used by Lord True, the government minister, himself when defending the new appointments during one of the debates. This prime ministerial tendency, however, leads to a recurring inflation in the number of peers, with prime ministers from opposing parties attempting to ‘rebalance’ partisanship in the House to their favour.

The limits of cross-party agreement

Despite cross-party agreement on reform, the House of Lords is limited in what it can do to solve even just the issue of its size. Indeed, Lord True referred to the problem inherent in an unelected House determining its own membership noting that the Lords is “not a gentlemen’s club and the membership of the House must, at the end of the day, have political accountability.”

The multiple problems with the current House of Lords are being increasingly recognised, but constitutional tinkering will only get us so far and can be easily undone. As the Earl of Caithness mentioned, it might be time to start at the beginning and decide what a second chamber should do and how it should be constituted, and only afterwards decide on numbers.

Why we need an elected second chamber

It is the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the Lords, not just its size or composition, which is the problem. However necessary to ameliorate some of the House of Lords’ most anachronistic and unrepresentative elements, no amount of tweaking at the edges – whether by abolishing hereditary peer by-elections, reducing the number of new appointments while increasing retirements, or improving the pool from which peers are chosen to enhance diversity and expertise – can solve this fundamental tension.

While it remains unelected, the House of Lords will continue to suffer from a complete lack of democratic legitimacy and accountability. And it will be completely incapable of reforming itself, however slightly, especially if there is a lack of political will and engagement within government and the House of Commons.

Now is the time to boldly push for a fairly elected second chamber, which represents the diversity of opinion across the UK and which has the democratic legitimacy and accountability to perform its essential functions of scrutinising and revising legislation.

Sign our petition for a fairly elected second chamber

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