The House of Lords has recently lost three distinguished members: the philosopher and former president of Trinity College Oxford, Lord Quinton, the former Cabinet minister Lord Walker of Worcester, and the businessman Lord Laing of Dunphail (a very succesful business figure in his own right, whose grandfather invented the digestive biscuit). In actuarial terms, the House loses in the region of sixteen members a year. However, the number of new creations has tended to exceed the number of deaths. At the start of the new session in 1999, following passage of the House of Lords Act, there were just over 660 members. We are now well in excess of 700 with the number rising. Not only have there been two recent lists of peers announced – increasing our number by over fifty – but The Sunday Times reported yesterday that another list of about fifty is expected later this year, primarily to bolster the Government’s ranks. We may thus have a membership in excess of 800 by the end of the year.
This burgeoning membershp is causing concern in the House. The Government is aware of the problem, though nonetheless ploughs ahead by creating more life peers. The increase creates practical as well as political problems. From a practical point of view, there is the issue of where to put them. Office space is already under pressure. It will be some time before the so-called island site (the whole of 2 Millbank) is complete and that I believe may only alleviate the problem rather than solve it. It is also likely to create some cramming in the chamber, especially during Question Time. We already have a situation where at times some peers have to squat on the floor.
The political dimension is causing just as much, if not more, concern. If all the new members prove regular attenders, then the cost of the House increases, admittedly not by a huge amount but nonetheless the pressure at the moment (quite understandably) is to reduce costs. If members fail to show, there is no cost to the public purse, but it looks bad. The closer the active membership correlates with the actual membership, the better.
There are various proposals as to how to reduce the size of the House: for example, enabling members to take permament leave of absence (perhaps with some incentive to do so) and providing that members who fail to show during a session – or attend fewer than 10% or 20% of the sittings – shall be deemed to have taken permanent leave of absence. This may have some impact on the overall size of the House, but it may not necessarily reduce the size substantially.
There is a feeling that the House should aspire to having fewer members than sit in the Commons. However, there is no agreement on the optimum size of the House. I would be interested to have views as to what figure we should be working towards (if any). What criteria should inform us? Or are we worrying too much about public reaction to a House of 800?