There has for some time been an apparent consensus in parliament and government that the House of Lords has too many members, yet recent efforts to effect reform have made little progress. David Beamish explains how an apparent change of government position and the parliamentary tactics of a determined minority have slowed the pace of change.
There has long been concern, both within parliament and outside it, about the number of members of the House of Lords – currently over 780. The prospect of major reform seems remote. However, there have been two strands of activity to try to reduce the numbers: the proposals of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House (the Burns committee), and a private member’s bill to end by-elections to replace hereditary peers (the Grocott bill).
In November 2017 I wrote a blog post describing the publication of the report of the Burns committee as ‘a real opportunity for progress on reform’. In July 2018 I wrote another blog post on the continuing hereditary peer by-elections in the House, ending with the comment that, although other issues currently dominate the political and parliamentary agenda, ‘there may nevertheless be some prospect of real progress in relation to both the size of the House of Lords and the ending of the hereditary peer by-elections’. Subsequently there was heartening progress on both fronts, but last month saw two reverses.
The government’s reluctance becomes clearer
The Burns committee offered an ingenious and carefully thought out plan for gradually reducing, and then capping, the number of members of the House of Lords. Its theme was taken up by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, which published its own report in November 2018. That report helpfully gave strong support to the Burns committee proposals. Its recommendations included, among others:
‘The effect of implementing the Burns Report recommendations is the very minimum reform which should be contemplated. We support the objective of reducing the size of the House of Lords and capping the Chamber’s size at a maximum of 600 members, but we recommend that this be achieved more quickly than the rate set out in the Burns Report.’
‘It is important that the Prime Minister commits to the proposed cap and to limiting appointments in line with the proposed appointment formula. The adoption of this formula is a vital aspect of the proposals to reduce the size of the House. This system would make appointment of peers more transparent and set out clearly, as called for by our predecessor committees over many years, a constitutional convention that appointments to the House of Lords should reflect the results of the most recent general election.’
‘We recommend that all political parties and HOLAC provide a written statement of nomination setting out why a person is being nominated for a peerage and how this qualifies them to contribute to the House of Lords. The person nominated should also make a written statement prior to the nomination being approved, setting out how they intend to contribute to the work of the House of Lords, in particular to the scrutiny of Bills and other legislation, and in general to the work of the Committees of the House.’
That step forward was, however, followed by a less-than-supportive government response, published in March with the Committee’s 12th Special Report:
‘The Government does not … accept the Committee’s recommendation that the Prime Minister must now commit to a specific cap on numbers, and absolutely limiting appointments in line with the formula proposed. As the Prime Minister outlined in her letter [to the Lord Speaker, in February 2018], some of the recommendations of the Lord Speaker’s committee represent short-term, practical steps that can be implemented straight away. Fixing the size of the House of Lords, and the ratios of party strengths within it, would be a long-term, significant change to the composition, character and functions of the Lords, and therefore needs careful consideration and wider engagement, so as not to risk unintended consequences, in particular to the fundamental relationship between the Lords and the elected House.’
The Prime Minister’s letter in February 2018 had used broadly warmer words, and not explicitly ruled out a size cap or limit on the number of appointments.
It is of some comfort that a second report from the Burns Committee, published in October 2018, noted an encouraging number of retirements from the House – 21 in total – in the year after the original report was published. But there were only eight further retirements in the following six months, so the scheme for the parties and Crossbenchers to encourage their members to retire may be losing momentum.
The Grocott bill faces another obstacle.
A hereditary peer who dies or retires is replaced by means of a by-election, which is conducted using the Alternative Vote system. Any hereditary peer may stand and the electorate consists of hereditaries who are already members or (for 15 of the places) the whole House. They are the only category of peer selected in this way, with all others appointed for life by the Prime Minister.
On 27 March 2019 the Lords heard the outcome of its 37th by-election. One of 14 candidates, the 4th Lord Ravensdale received 18 first-preference votes out of 28 cast and was thus elected, without any transfers of votes, to fill the place left by the death of Viscount Slim in January. Lord Ravensdale (born in 1982 and now the youngest member of the Lords) is the great-grandson of George Nathaniel Curzon, Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, the grandson of Baroness Ravensdale of Kedleston – one of the first life peers appointed in 1958 – and the son of the novelist Nicholas Mosley, 3rd Lord Ravensdale, who died in 2017. But that impressive pedigree can hardly justify the quaint process by which a small number of hereditary peers (sometimes as few as three) decide who can sit in the House of Lords, at a time when there is widespread acceptance that the number of members ought to be reduced.
A simple way of assisting the process of reducing numbers would be to leave unfilled the places of elected hereditary peers who retire or die. My July 2018 blog post referred to Lord Grocott’s House of Lords (Hereditary Peers) (Abolition of By-Elections) Bill, which at that time was awaiting a second day of proceedings in Committee of the whole House on 7 September. On that occasion Amendment 35A was reached, but with another 30 amendments to go Lord Grocott then successfully proposed that the rest of the bill should be taken in Grand Committee – a novelty for a private member’s bill. When it met on 23 November, it succeeded in completing the committee stage in less than an hour (doubtless helped by the rule that there are no divisions in Grand Committee)
Time was eventually found for a report stage on Friday 15 March, but the rapid progress from the second day in committee was not repeated. Once again there was no shortage of amendments – 62 were tabled, and in the 3½ hours made available proceedings reached only as far as Amendment 14. The debate demonstrated the difficulty of countering attempts to prolong proceedings by even a small number of members when time is limited. Such progress as was achieved was helped by a closure motion on Lord Strathclyde’s Amendment 2A, which sought to insert the words ‘and create a statutory House of Lords Appointments Commission’. That closure motion, incidentally, was reportedly only the ninth since 1900. A similar issue arose far more visibly on 4 April during proceedings on the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill, which was proposed by Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper MP and sought to rule out ‘no deal’. On that occasion, perhaps because proceedings could have continued overnight and beyond, and the bill’s supporters in the Lords were prepared for that, a deal to agree a timetable to complete proceedings was eventually struck. By this point, however, there had been another six divisions on closure motions, all carried by large majorities.
Lord Strathclyde’s amendment to Lord Grocott’s bill would, by introducing a major new provision – the establishment of a statutory House of Lords Appointments Commission – have widened its scope dramatically and controversially. The defeat of the amendment by 84 votes to 20 demonstrated the widespread support in the House for proceeding with putting an end to hereditary peer by-elections. But in the absence of government enthusiasm for making progress it must be highly unlikely that the bill will even complete its Lords stages, let alone (unlike Yvette Cooper’s bill) reach the statute book. And the apparently diminishing use of the option of resignation/retirement from the House suggests that, at least while Brexit dominates parliamentary proceedings, progress in reducing the size of the House of Lords remains, unfortunately, on hold.
Cause for optimism?
More positively, the Prime Minister, in her February 2018 letter to the Lord Speaker, announced her intention, when making nominations for life peerages, ‘to continue with the restraint which I have exercised to date and, when making appointments, to allocate them fairly, bearing in mind the results of the last general election and the leadership shown by each party in terms of retirements’. That restraint has indeed been shown, and in her first 1000 days in office (to 9 April 2019) she nominated only 42 new life peers, including the 16 in David Cameron’s resignation list. If, as speculation suggests, there may be a change of Prime Minister within the next few months, let us hope that any successor will show similar restraint and that the numbers will not be significantly increased by Theresa May’s own resignation list.
David Beamish was Clerk of the Parliaments, House of Lords, from 2011 to 2017 and is a Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit. Follow him on Twitter: @clerkly