Coalition urged to put moratorium on Lords appointments

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[First Published on Thursday 25th November 2010]

This archive item is a window onto issues as they appeared at the time. It contains facts and opinions which may have been superseded by subsequent events.

Constitutional expert Dr Meg Russell has warned that the Coalition pledge to make the political makeup of the House of Lords  reflect that of the lower House has put Parliament on an “unsustainable course” which will do “serious damage” if it goes unchecked.

The Constitution Unit’s deputy director voiced her concerns following the recent announcement of the latest round of peer appointments by the Coalition.  The 50 new names take the Prime Minister’s peerage list to the “unprecedented” level of 111 in the six months since his election and means that the number of Members in the Second Chamber now exceeds the level prior to the removal of hereditary peers in 1999.

The problem lies in the fact that peerages continue to be awarded for life.  The only means to address the political balance of the House is therefore to add new members and because the rate of appointment dwarfs the level of peers’ mortality, the House continues to grow.  Indeed Russell argues that in order for the Coalition to achieve their goal of proportionality, the Chamber will need to swell to nearly 1000 Members – perhaps just in time for their successors to start again post May 2015.

The risks of pursuing the Government’s current path are explained by the academic, who authored a renowned comparative study of Second Chambers globally.  She warms that the Chamber would become “politically unmanageable”, increase demand on the public purse and “lose the respect of voters”.

Russell is clear in her verdict; “this simply has to stop”.

The solution does not lie, she argues, in the Government’s current endeavour to charge a “Leader’s Group” with the task of considering options for retirements from the House.  She is indeed resolutely unoptimistic about the potential for a group to establish reform when it was they themselves, albeit in the role of Opposition at time, who blocked similar proposals in the (Labour) Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill during the last parliament.

Russell’s alternative proposal is a set of 3 practical policy changes:

1. Introduce a cap on the number of Lords (the figure 700 is suggested as a feasible goal).

2. Any appointments within this cap should be made in proportion to last general election vote share.

3. All power of appointment should be taken out of the hands of the Prime Minister and awarded to the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission.

Whether any Government would be willing to tie their own hands in such a way is unclear but to have such an authoritative voice call for this radical reform should surely make those at the top at least stop and think.

Dr Russell’s full article is available here.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.