The Constitution Unit


Time for a moratorium on Lords Appointments

22 November 2010

Comment by Meg Russell

This week's latest batch of 54 new appointments to the House of Lords has put the government and parliament on an unsustainable course. This creates an urgent need to rethink how such appointments are made in future. In the six months since the general election no fewer than 111 new peers have been created. This swells the ranks of those presently entitled to attend the Lords to 792. Add in the 39 peers who are on 'leave of absence' or otherwise temporarily excluded from membership and the overall potential size of the chamber reaches 831.

For comparison, just after the Lords was reformed in 1999 to remove most hereditary peers there were 666 members (at which point it was already by far the largest second chamber in the world). In the ten years that followed this number crept gradually upwards, to around 700 in May this year. But the rate of appointments since then has been unprecedented, threatening to create a larger and larger chamber which becomes politically unmanageable, increases demands on the public purse, and loses the respect of voters. Putting it bluntly, this simply has to stop.

The coalition agreement states that "Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election". This offers one rationale for the spate of new appointments. Another (more justified) reason why the Conservatives in particular wanted to refresh their Lords benches was that Tory peers were on average older, and attended less often, than peers from other groups, as relatively few had been appointed in recent years. But while new appointments have helped deal with the second of these problems, they have made little contribution to the first. By the time Labour lost power it had more peers than the Conservatives: around 220 versus 200. Since then 38 new Labour peers have been announced, plus 43 Conservatives and 24 Liberal Democrats. Even after this latest batch have taken their seats Labour will remain the largest party. Supposing that no new Labour peers were appointed from now on, around 86 more Conservative peers and 99 more Liberal Democrat peers would be needed in order to achieve proportionality with general election votes. This would create a chamber of 977 members, even in the unlikely event that no new independents or others were included.

This shows clearly how the coalition's objective of achieving proportionality simply unsustainable. This is aggravated by the fact that once members are appointed to the Lords they stay there for life. The only 'space' that is created results from the roughly 15 peers who die each year. But new peers are relatively younger and may hold their seats for 30 or 40 years. Hence if each new government tries to correct the balance to account for the last general election, the size of the chamber is bound to spiral ever further out of control. Some sensitivity to this fact may explain why Labour changed party balance in the chamber only gradually. It was not until 2005 - eight years after first gaining power - that it became the largest party in the Lords.

For as long as the system of appointment for life continues, the proportionality goal must therefore simply be forgotten, before serious damage is done. The government may respond by saying that it is seeking to do something about life appointment: a "Leaders Group" in the Lords has been established to consider options for retirements from the House, and issued its interim report earlier this month. Possible options include introduction of a retirement age, fixed terms of say 15 years, or automatic disqualification of peers who attend only rarely. But all of these are controversial. The last, for example, might see exclusion of some of the better known 'expert' members of the chamber, leaving a core of more dedicated party political members who attend more frequently. In any case this all takes place under the shadow of the promised major reform to introduce second chamber elections. Many will reject small 'tidying up' measures such as retirements, seeing these as a threat to larger-scale reform.

The Conservatives in particular are on very weak ground with respect to Lords retirements. It was they who blocked the provisions in the Constitutional Reform and Governance bill in the last parliament that would have allowed for exactly this. Had those provisions gone through there would at least have been a bit more space for appointing new peers. Now there is absolutely no guarantee that the Lords Leader's Group on retirement will successfully lead to reform. After all, if this wasn't acceptable to the governing parties before the election, why should it be now? We have learnt that Lords reform of any kind is difficult, which is why there has been none in 11 years. It is thus quite likely that proposals for retirement will fail. A quite realistic worst case scenario is that this happens, while the government keeps trying to push on with new appointments. This is why something has to give.

I therefore conclude that now is the time for a written rule to be established over Lords appointments, which at the moment remain almost wholly in the prime minister's control. He still decides how many peers are appointed, when, and with what party balance. But this state of affairs will no longer do. What is needed is three simple changes:

  • First, a cap on Lords numbers. This would mean that no appointments could be made until numbers had dropped below a fixed limit. This is the system that operates in the appointed Senate in Canada, for example. The cap would ideally be no greater than the size of the House of Commons (i.e. currently 650). But given that we are where we are it might now be set at 700.
  • Second, any new appointments to the Lords within this cap should be made in proportion to last general election vote share. That is, proportionality should apply amongst new members appointed, rather than total size of the House (as the coalition document proposed). The above discussion indicates why achieving proportionality amongst the whole House membership simply will not work. Proportionality among appointments, in contrast, would be far more sustainable and avoid big swings between the parties.
  • Third, policing of all of this should be put in the hands of the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission, taking it out of the hands of the prime minister. The commission has proven its worth over the last 10 years in vetting peers for propriety, and is well capable of overseeing the implementation of a clear new set of rules.

In practice this would mean no more Lords appointments for some time: until "natural wastage" (i.e. peers' mortality) has taken the numbers below the cap. Given the size that the chamber has now reached, that will take several years, even with a cap of 700. Of course, if retirement provisions are agreed, all of this might change (and the restriction in the meantime would offer an ideal incentive to government to help that change come about). But even then I suggest that the three rules above would be appropriate for guiding future appointments to the Lords, for as long as these may continue.