A report (pdf) by University College London's Constitution Unit, featured on BBC Newsnight last night, has renewed concerns about the size of the House of Lords. The Prime Minister has already appointed 117 peers in less than a year. The current number is 831 (792 are entitled to attend and vote), compared to 666 a decade ago.
The high number of Lords is starting to impact the working of the institution. According to the BBC:
"Peers are faced with working in overcrowded conditions, with limited access to computers and telephones, and little or no space for staff," the Constitution Unit report said. "This is far from conducive to effective working. Many more peers are seeking to contribute to debates, ask questions, and become members of committees. This has created a more fractious atmosphere in the chamber, and growing frustration amongst members who cannot contribute effectively."
Tony Blair appointed 70 peers in 1997-8, and after 13 years of Labour government, and the transition from a hereditary Lords to an appointed one, the Lords is currently biased towards Labour to the degree that even after 117 Coalition appointments, the parties in the Lords are nowhere near equally represented. To achieve parity between the parties, Mr Cameron would need to create an addition 269 peers, and bring the total number of Lords to nearly 1150.
So there is a reason for the Prime Minister to appoint new peers – in order to get the government's business done. But the number of "big beasts" from all parties who endorse the view that the Lords is too big and should give Mr Cameron pause for thought:
…former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler; former Speaker Baroness Boothroyd; the convenor of the independent crossbenchers, Baroness De Souza; former Labour leader of the Lords Baroness Jay; former Tory Cabinet ministers Lord Forsyth and Lord Mackay of Clashfern; former Labour cabinet minister Lord Adonis; former Liberal leader Lord Steel of Aikwood; and former Master of the Rolls Lord Woolf.
Those big beasts call for three things:
- An immediate moratorium on Lords appointments, to be lifted only when the number of members has dropped below 750. Thereafter 750 should be an absolute cap on its size.
- Allowing retirements from the Lords, as proposed recently by a House of Lords Leader’s Group chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral.
- Any future appointments to be put on a more transparent and sustainable basis, with the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission determining how many vacancies exist, and inviting nominations from the parties.
With the Coalition Agreement including a commitment to reform (elect by proportional representation) the Lords, the large numbers of new Lords could soon be asked to be turkeys voting for Christmas – the government may decide to abolish them. If Ed Miliband does not support such a plan, more Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers will have to be created in order to stand a chance of passing any such abolishing legislation.