If the House of Lords did not exist, nobody would dream of inventing it in its present form. However it works well as a revising chamber, bringing together great expertise from its very eminent members. The best of British society can be found there, including many politicians with a distinguished record of public service who have much to contribute despite no longer holding elected office.
Complaints about the House of Lords
I regularly encounter many complaints about the House of Lords. Some of these are invalid while others are reasonably founded.
- It is not elected. As a democrat, I would like to see both houses of Parliament fully elected with a written constitution to regulate the relationship between all three parts of our governmental system: executive, legislature and judiciary. However, those who believe that you can just proceed to have some peers elected without triggering a fundamental change in the relationship between the Lords and the Commons are simply wrong.
- The party political balance in the Lords is out of kilter with the Commons. This has some validity but I am not convinced that the Lords should simply reflect the results of the immediately preceding general election.
- It is too big. Many peers regularly point out that the House of Lords simply has too many peers, with excessive crowding in the chamber and limitations on the facilities that can be provided to peers. I agree that the Lords would benefit from being smaller.
How to downsize the Lords
I strongly disagree with some of the ideas that have been proposed for reducing the size of the Lords. The idea of an age limit is discriminatory and as mentioned above what matters is not a peers’ ages but their effectiveness. Term limits are almost as bad; if a peer is performing well, why eject them from the Lords simply because a fixed number of years has elapsed.
Instead, I believe that the downsizing should be based upon the demonstrated effectiveness of the peers, so that it is those who are making the smallest contribution who would be ejected.
In my view the effectiveness of peers cannot be measured by simple quantitative criteria such as how often they turn up in the chamber, how often they speak or how often they ask a question. Instead, the people best placed to assess the effectiveness of peers are other peers. I propose doing this at the start of each parliament with a secret ballot using the single transferable voting (STV) system. The aim would be to reduce the present number of peers to the desired target number. To avoid upsetting the political balance and to minimise the scope for politically gaming the poll, I propose organising the ballot by groupings as illustrated below.
The Electoral Reform Society website explains STV. Leaving to one side the mechanical details of how the vote is counted, all that it would entail doing is, for example, giving each Crossbench peer a paper or electronic ballot paper listing all existing 132 Crossbench peers (assuming they all wished to stand for retention) and asking each Crossbench peer to enumerate them starting with 1 for their first preference until they were indifferent between the remaining names on the ballot. An electronic ballot paper has the advantage that you cannot accidentally use the same numerical ranking twice (e.g. putting two people down at 23) which would otherwise invalidate the ballot paper.
I have no preconceived view on the desirable target size for the House of Lords. I have set out below some numerical illustrations with a target size of 400 peers. I could have avoided giving even an illustrative number by using algebra, but that would have made the article much harder to read!
The House of Lords today
The Parliament website states that there are 788 peers at the time of writing. The most convenient listing I have found is on Wikipedia. That encyclopaedia is often mocked, in my view wrongly. When I checked, it listed 786 peers, which I regard as good accuracy given that peers are being created and dying all the time.
The table below show the House of Lords and what it would look like reduced to 400 members pro rata.
|House of Lords||Present||Simple reduction to 400||Party Peers included in the 400|
|Excepted hereditary peers||85||43|
|Law life peers||13||7|
There are some interesting consequences:
- There would no longer be places for every Anglican bishop. They could either vote to decide who stays by STV as with the other groupings, or the Archbishop of Canterbury could decide who he wants to keep from his team.
- The Law life peers would similarly reduce.
- The hereditary peers who are already in the Lords would have an STV ballot like the other groupings since they are the ones best placed to decide which of their membership are the most effective. I prefer that to balloting all hereditary peers to decide which 43 to keep.
The party political mix of the Lords
In my view, it is not desirable to simply have the party political mix of the Lords automatically mirror that of the House of Commons after each general election. Instead a revising chamber should change its political mix gradually to reflect changes in the political mix of our country over time. For example, one could take the simple average of the last three general elections. Perhaps more appropriate would be a weighted average, as this could give more weight to more recent general elections. For example, a simple weighting formula would give a weight of 3 for the 2010 general election result, 2 for 2005 and 1 for 2001.
One could also base the political mix on either the number of MPs from each party elected in the relevant general election, or upon the total number of votes cast for that party by the national electorate in that general election.
The table below illustrates the above alternatives using MP numbers for simplicity.
|House of Lords Party Peers||Present HoL ratio||Ratio of 2010 general election||Simple average of 2001-2010 general elections||Weighted average of last three (2001-2010) general elections|
Rationing new peerages
At present, there are no identifiable limits on how many new peers can be created, especially by the Prime Minister. Once you have a system for shrinking the membership of the Lords after each general election to match some kind of moving average composition, there need to be limits on how many peers can be created in each Parliament.
I propose after downsizing having a fixed limit of 100 political peers who may be created during the lifetime of the next Parliament, allocated amongst the party leaders in the same ratio as used for the political peers immediately after the general election. Once this allocation had been used up, the party leaders would no longer be able to create new political peers for the remaining life of the next Parliament.
I believe that the UK needs an entrenched written constitution in the same way as almost every other country in the world. Our American cousins have much to teach us, having devised the most successful constitution ever seen in human history. However “the best is the enemy of the good” and we should not allow the need for a written constitution to distract us from the desired reduction in the size of the Lords.