The Constitution Unit


Evidence to the Leaders' Group on Retirements from the House of Lords

5 October 2010

Evidence from Dr Meg Russell


You have asked me to submit some thoughts regarding the task given to Lord Hunt of Wirral and his Group "to identify options for allowing Members to leave the House of Lords permanently". I hope that at least some of the points below are helpful to your work. They are informed by the research that I in particular, and the Constitution Unit more broadly, have conducted on the House of Lords and options for its reform over the last 12 years and more. I would of course be happy to provide more detailed thoughts on some of these topics should you require.

The desirability of allowing retirement from the Lords

There are two principal reasons why it is desirable to introduce provisions allowing members to 'retire', or leave the Lords permanently. The first is simply that some members of the Lords would like to leave. The second is that under the current system the size of the chamber is continually growing, in a manner that may soon become unsustainable.

On the first of these points, members clearly do already have the option of taking 'leave of absence' if they feel that they can no longer contribute to the work of the chamber. It is not my place to speak for members, and no doubt the Leader's Group will take evidence from members about the pros and cons of the leave of absence arrangements. But there are some obvious difficulties if this remains the only route out of the chamber (save for death) for most members.

The principal problem is that if a member takes leave of absence there is no certainty whether or not they will return. Many members do return from leave of absence, sometimes even when they have not expected to do so. Most famously Lord Phillips of Sudbury announced his 'retirement' from the Lords in 2006, only to return in 2009. These uncertainties make it unclear whether those on leave of absence should still be considered 'members' of the chamber for accounting purposes. At a minimum their presence on lists of members, etc, may make numbers in the Lords look more swollen than they are. But more importantly, the party balance in the chamber may be adversely affected, in ways that cannot be properly resolved when members have not permanently departed. For example, if 20 Conservative peers took leave of absence the Conservative leadership would feel their loss, but at the same time have difficulty defending the appointment of more Conservative peers to take their place. In turn, members themselves may feel that they are letting their party/group down if they take leave of absence, as there is no guarantee that they will be 'replaced' and their group may thereby be weakened. While it may be right that a peerage should be for life, it seems unfair on members that the honour of serving in the House of Lords should be a life sentence from which there is no escape. The issues of party balance, and links to the peerage, are both explored further below.

Read the full submission »