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How to downsize the House of Lords

Summary

10 December 2014

I hear many complaints about the House of Lords, but the only one I find convincing is that it has now become just too big. However while I regularly come across proposals for electing the House of Lords, I have not come across any radical plans for reducing its size.

I decided to tackle this in a piece for the Conservative Home website. The title was deliberately chosen; when an organisation gets too big, one needs to be unsentimental about hacking it back down to the right size. My piece is reproduced below.

Mohammed Amin: How to downsize the House of Lords

Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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.

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
Labour 216 110 110
Conservative 182 93 93
Crossbench 132 67
Liberal Democrat 102 52 52
Excepted hereditary peers 85 43
Bishops 26 13
Non-affiliated 16 8
Law life peers 13 7
Other parties 14 7 7
786 400 262

There are some interesting consequences:

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
Labour 110 104 137 127
Conservative 93 123 90 100
Liberal Democrat 52 23 23 23
Other parties 7 12 12 12
262 262 262 262

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.

Concluding comments

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.

 

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