Government Reform Proposals for the House of Lords


[First Published on Thursday 2nd June 2011]

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 It contains facts and opinions which may have been superseded by subsequent events.

On May 17th the government introduced its Draft Bill for House of Lords Reform in the Commons and the Lords.

The Draft Bill proposes a move to an 80% elected upper house, with the remaining members appointed by recommendation of the Prime Minister.  The new House of Lords would be made up of 300 members, with the 240 elected members sitting for 15-year terms. Membership will not be renewable, which is intended to safeguard the independence of the elected members.

Elections to the new upper house, according to these plans, would be conducted via a Single Transferable Vote system with multi-member constituencies. Elections would coincide with elections to the Commons, except where a general election was called within 2 years of the previous one (due to a vote of no confidence).

The Draft Bill is the product of a Joint Committee which met between June and December 2010. The introduction to the Draft Bill notes that the Committee remained split as to the size of the elected membership and the system of election to be used.

The plans for 15-year terms are intended to coincide with the government’s Fixed Term Parliaments Bill. That Bill, if passed, will remove the Prime Minister’s power to dissolve Parliament, ensuring that most Parliaments last 5 years. That should mean that most elected members of the new upper house will sit for the full 15 years, although in some cases their time will be cut short.

The Draft Bill observes that the average attendance in the Lords during the last year was 388, so the reduction in size will not be so dramatic a change to the habits of the most active members (“the working house”) as might first be thought.

In order to make the transition to the proposed system, elected members will be phased in through 3 successive rounds in each of which 80 members will be elected. By the final round there will be only 60 appointed peers remaning, and in the following general election the first generation of elected representatives will be replaced.

The Draft Bill contains 3 alternative models for replacing the existing membership. There are likely to be some “transitional members”, which might well mean some hereditary peers remaining in the Lords, provided that they are selected for this role by their colleagues. The new upper house will also contain 12 ex-officio seats for bishops.

The powers of the House of Lords (which may be renamed at a later date) will remain as they are, with the preeminence of the Commons protected by a combination of precedent and convention. The stated intention is to retain the “fundamental relationship” between Parliament’s houses.

The Draft Bill does contain indications that these plans might yet be subject to dramatic change during the assessment of the Bill in Parliament:

“a wholly elected House of Lords has not been ruled out”

The Draft Bill does commit to using a system of Proportional Representation for electing members, however it mentions that a List System would also be a valid choice.

The leeway which the Draft Bill has provided is likely to be tested: during the Parliamentary readings in the Commons and Lords a range of strong opinions were voiced, indicating that these proposals are sure to be the subject of heated debate.

To read a full version of the Draft Bill, click 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.