The Sunday Times (£) reports that Sir George Young, David Willetts, Greg Barker, Ed Llewellyn and Kate Fall will be appointed to the Lords amidst a tranche of as many as 40 new Conservative peers to be announced this week. ConservativeHome readers will view this news as further evidence of the unacceptability or indispensability of patronage, according to taste. We lean to the latter view. But perhaps the most important element of the story is that the new peerages will take the size of the Lords to almost 900. It is already the largest Upper House in any democracy – exceeded in size only by China’s National People’s Congress.
Furthermore, about one in seven peers is a Liberal Democrat, compared to under one in 50 MPs. Nothing wrong with that, you may say: why should the proportions of the Upper House mirror that of lower? A problem with this line of argument is that the Liberal Democrats themselves do not agree with it. Indeed, they wrote into last Government’s Coalition Agreement 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 being so, they will presumably not complain if – as should be the case – no further Liberal Democrat peers are appointed this week: no Lord Cable of Bushy Park; no Lord Davey of Bentalls. The mirror image of the over-representation of the yellows is the under-representation of the purples. No UKIP member has yet been appointed to the Upper House. (This is also true of the SNP – though, unlike UKIP which has a small band of peers, the party frowns on peerages.) In a nutshell, the Lords is too big and too yellow.
ConservativeHome remains opposed to an elected Lords. At present, one chamber disposes (the Commons) and the other can only propose (the Lords). If both chambers were to propose, a written constitution would be needed to separate their powers. This would be a step too far for an old country whose unwritten constitution has served it well. None the less, Tony Blair’s devolution settlement has damaged it deeply – with over two in five Scots voting to leave the Union last year. And the way we are governed is changing rapidly: George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse plan has big implications.
If English votes for English laws passes the Commons, the Lords will become the chamber that votes on legislation as a whole. Such an imbalance would suggest radical reform, at least to some. But either way, the Upper House needs downsizing. Peers themselves might not necessarily be opposed: the Steel Bill, for which there was quite a bit of support in the Lords, proposed a cull. This might be exercised on the basis of age or, better, non-attendance (as Steel himself suggested). Or each political group in the chamber might choose to hold the political equivalent of a balloon debate – chucking out its least its members with least support. But whatever the method may be, we need a smaller Lords.