The House of Lords is about to become the second largest parliamentary assembly in the entire world. This week David Cameron appointed forty-five new peers to it, taking the total membership to 826. The unelected chamber will now be over a quarter larger than the elected House of Commons. Many people (including not a few of their lordships) think this is ludicrously large. Many are also outraged by the choice of people who get to sit on the red benches and receive an attendance allowance of £300 a day for their troubles. So are the numbers and selection of peers justified? Or does the whole institution need reform?
Since 1999 the size of the House of Lords has increased by about a third. In the last five years alone, David Cameron has appointed 236 new peers, more than any prime minister has created since the system of life (as distinct from hereditary) peers was set up in 1958. According to the Constitution Unit at University College, London, Mr Cameron is averaging around 44 new peers a year, compared with 37 under Tony Blair and only 18 under Margaret Thatcher. What’s more, the Prime Minister has been appointing far more new peers from his own party compared with his predecessors. Just over 60% of his appointments have been Tories, whereas 58% of Mrs Thatcher’s smaller intake were Conservatives, and only 43% of Mr Blair’s new peerages were Labour. Of the 45 new peers, 26 are Tory, 11 Liberal Democrat and 8 Labour.
The Prime Minister justifies the large increase in the number of new peers and the fact that they are disproportionately Conservative on the grounds that his party, despite winning the general election and so having a majority in the Commons, is in a minority in the Lords. It faces constant defeat by the threat of Labour and LibDem peers ganging up against it. The new Tory peers will go some way to reducing this threat.
But this argument does not wash with many people. In the first place, they say, it would lead the Lords to mushroom even more. Given that life peers are (as the title suggests) there for life, every time a government changed colour, the new government would have to create a whole bunch of new peers from its party to offset the numbers created by the previous government. This process would go on ad infinitum.
But they have a more fundamental objection to Mr Cameron’s case. They argue that the Lords does not need to reflect the democratic mandate and never has.
Of course when the Lords was made up only of hereditary peers, most of whom were Tory, the Lords was in line with the elected government only when that government was itself Conservative. But the solution to the problem was not to create loads of non-Tory peers whenever a party of a different stripe was in power (though the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, threatened to do just that in 1910). The solution instead was to curb the powers of the Lords so that it could not ultimately defeat the Commons but only subject the decisions of the Commons to scrutiny and impose delay, forcing the Commons to have second thoughts. That was the deal instituted in the Parliament Act of 1911 which is still in force today.
The implication of that deal, and the justification for the continuing existence of an unelected second chamber ever since, is that what are needed in the House of Lords are independent-minded peers with expertise in their field rather than party appointments. The chief objection to Mr Cameron’s appointments is that, instead, they are overwhelmingly party placemen. Indeed in 2012 the Prime Minister instructed the House of Lords Appointments Commission (which oversees the creation of new peers) to authorise no more than two crossbench peers (ie not affiliated to any party) a year. The batch of peers created in the ‘Dissolution Honours’ this week are all party people and many observers are holding their noses.
A flavour of the reaction is caught in the way the Independent reported the appointments in its lead story on Friday. ‘Disgraced MPs who cheated on their expenses, a multimillionaire Tory donor, a group of backroom political fixers and an alcohol industry lobbyist have been ennobled by David Cameron, sparking renewed calls for root-and-branch reform of the House of Lords’.
Particular exception has been taken to the ennoblement of Douglas Hogg, the former Tory cabinet minister who became notorious for having claimed expenses to have the moat of his Lincolnshire home cleaned and whose peerage was blocked four years ago. But also in the firing line is a businessman who gave the Tory party nearly £3m and party insiders who have never been elected to anything. To some it is all rather reminiscent of Harold Wilson’s Dissolution honours in the 1970s, dubbed the ‘Lavender List’: it needed to be printed on lavender-scented paper, the wags claimed, in order to conceal the stench of political corruption.
Unsurprisingly, reform is being demanded. Meg Russell, the deputy director of the Constitution Unit, said: ‘Independent peers are one of the very few things that the public likes about the House of Lords but David Cameron appears intent on reducing their influence. We need an immediate cap on the size of the chamber, a brake on ministerial appointments, and a move to a far more regulated system. The Lords is in danger of serious crisis, and I believe bodies such as the Lords Constitution Committee, or perhaps even the Lord Speaker now need to step in and help forge agreement for urgent change. The current system is costly to the taxpayer, damaging to Parliament, and badly needs to stop.’
But old hands will not be holding their breath. Repeated attempts since the 1960s to reform or indeed abolish the Lords have all come to nothing, with the exception of Tony Blair’s restriction of the number of hereditary peers to 92. Proposals to make the second chamber more democratic by having it wholly or partially elected have tended to founder on the objection that, if elected, it would gain democratic clout and so pose a constitutional threat to the House of Commons, which many people believe should remain pre-eminent, even if subject to Lords scrutiny. The idea of abolishing the Lords altogether and having a parliament with a single chamber has been opposed on the grounds that the Commons would become an elective dictatorship.
More modest reforms have made some headway. Since last year peers have, for the first time, been able to retire, though few have taken the option. A development of this idea is that peers should be appointed not for life but for a limited, if lengthy, period.
The main reason, though, why real reform is so difficult, is that governments, and in particular prime ministers, are very reluctant to give up the powers of patronage that include appointing peerages as the top prize. In their eyes it’s a cheap way to reward cronies, quieten dissent and keep money flowing into party funds. Mr Cameron is only the latest prime minister to make full use of the system.
The big question is whether voters will go on putting up with it. It is being suggested in some quarters that the current Tory leadership is deliberately straining public tolerance in order to force real reform. Or maybe that is being put about by some clever backroom party fixers who may hope that by coming up with such ingenious PR wheezes they too will one day don the ermine themselves.
What will ultimately matter is what the public thinks. What do you think?