Objections to the House of Lords persist in both public and political circles, sometimes to the point of outrage. Now a report has recommended reducing the size of the house significantly over the next decade in a bid to make it function more effectively.
The report was commissioned by the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the House and will now go forward to the government for consideration.
The social crime of which the House of Lords stands accused is that its members are not elected but appointed. Proposals have been heard aplenty for a democratically elected house but antagonists should be careful what they wish for.
Populating the Lords exclusively with elected members would swell its power by bolstering its democratic legitimacy. That may be desirable if considered in isolation – but it could result in even more conflict between the two houses as they vie for legislative capacity.
Objectors to Lords reckon that it’s too large and unwieldy and that it obstructs government. Probably the first is felt more by public opinion as resentment; the second more by politicians in a possible misconception of the role of the House. So angst over this traditional institution can be split into concern over its constitution and its function.
Constitution entails its size and membership. Function involves its role as scrutineer of intended legislation. Questions of political legitimacy arise from both but reform becomes a matter of the amenability of each to solution. Revising its function would face parliament with complex constitutional issues, ultimately requiring new legislation; issues of constitution need not.
Whose house is this?
The Lords robustly defends its supervisory authority. Conflicts sometimes occur over secondary legislation but peers do not despise the idea of reform. Crucially, it has been remarked, they can instigate it themselves – but incrementally and without drama.
In commending the report the house, the lord speaker said:
We know that the House is too big. A smaller, more effective House will be able to strengthen public confidence and build support for our vital constitutional role. It is now up to us.
The report contributes to the current general aspiration of creating a more effective house by proposing changes to its constitution – specifically its size and membership. Function and role were outside its remit. It exemplifies the chamber’s incremental approach to reform and will help counter its characterisation as a moribund institution full of members disengaged from its business.
It recommends reducing the size of the house from about 800 to 600 seats by 2028. Appointments (not elections) for vacancies will continue but, initially, on the basis of one replacement for every two that occur. Members would, in the future, be expected to retire from office after 15 years. Under the current system, appointments are for life.
Surprisingly, the report also recommends equalising membership of the Lords with the proportions of votes won in election to the Commons. An average of popular (citizen) votes and seats won would be taken in calculating the distribution of membership according to political party. Tying membership to general election results in this way must be a gesture towards democracy. At present, the Lords looks very different from the Commons in terms of party make-up.
Whether the report represents a transitional phase in total reform or is merely a sticking plaster depends on how it is received by severe critics of the Lords. For some, only total abolition of the House ever will satisfy. For others, elections for membership. This partial approach does not deal with its relation to government – which is a more crucial problem. For the moderate observer, though, this might be the initial brave step in progressive self-regulation.