Size matters

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?

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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16 Responses to Size matters

  1. Dave H says:

    It’s all very well aspiring to have less members than the Commons, but when the Commons keep creating more peers, you’ll have a hard job.

    Can you explain the concept of the leave of absence? Is it expected that all life peers should be in attendance and are supposed to get permission to be absent? Is attendance deemed to be “present in the building”, attending debates in the chamber or some other measure? I guess the allowance is tied up with this somehow.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dave H: Yes, because peers receive writs of summons, they are expected to be in attendance. In practice, they may not attend but they remain members and therefore included in the figure for the membership of the House. A member may apply f0r leave of absence (which is automatically granted) until the end of a Parliament. The member can also apply in the next Parliament. A peer who has taken leave of absence can terminate it by giving notice in writing one month in advance.

      Attendance relates primarily to the chamber. (A peer on leave of absence can make use of the facilities, such as the dining rooms.) For the purpose of a peer being deemed to have attended a day’s sitting, the peer needs either to spend some time in the chamber or attend a committee. Where they are recorded as being in the chamber or in committee, they are eligible to claim the allowances for that day.

  2. ladytizzy says:

    Organise an in-House election at the same time as a general election with the top 400 winning full rights to the HoL. Any party imbalances can be adjusted by the House party leaders nominating, even elevating, who they want.

    Reduction of numbers with an immediate culling of the riff raff (you know who I mean), an elected HoL (!) and, if through PR, another box ticked, retention of independence, and a fascinating subplot to dreary GEs.

    Bingo! Or, rather, House!

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: I was going to say it sounds a bit radical, although the principle was utilised for electing 15 of the hereditary peers to remain in the House, that is, by a in-House and whole House election.

      • JH says:

        Alternatively, a version of the elections for the other 75 elected hereditaries could be used at every new Parliament (or other election if preferred) with the numbers of cross-benchers set at the frequently cited figure of 20% and the parties’ share dependent on their percenatge showing at the election.

        The House would then be reset to 500 (or whatever figure is chosen) every few years and there would be: * No long-term problems with size (unlike the Steel Bill);
        * No need to have an arbitrary retirement age;
        * No need to rely on the Appointments Commission to seek to reflect the performance at the last election (as per the Steel Bill);
        * only a limited reduction in the availability of expertise;
        * some flexibility to appoint a small number intra-parliament;
        * no need for interminable transition provisions;
        * very little cost in the running of elections (unlike the the previous White Paper’s suggested elections).

        A small amendment to the Steel Bill could present final reform with an ‘elected’ element thereby satisfying the co-alition agreement too!

  3. On a side note, very sad to hear of the death of Lord Quinton. His The Politics of Imperfection: The Religious and Secular Traditions of Conservative Thought in England from Hooker to Oakeshott is an extraordinary volume.

    Given Government plans to expand the membership of the Lords, it begs the question if its programme of reform is based upon principle or upon public perceptions. Having said that, it would appear that apart from natural attrition, setting some base minimum of attendance for continued membership seems one of the best options available—while preserving the dignity and independence of the Upper Chamber.

    Another possibility, currently the norm with Canadian senators, is to have a maximum age threshold; in Canada, this is 75 years, but 80 may suffice for the UK (retaining for public service the wisdom and experience of the ‘older’ parliamentarian).

    But there seems to be an underlying tension (to my eyes, at least) between the traditional prerogatives of an hereditary peerage and the now mandatory non-hereditary life peerages for ‘working’ members (I understand the Crown can continue to create hereditary peerages, but without any ‘active’ political ramifications).

    These working peers increasingly resemble the status of members of second chambers around the world, yet are restrained by traditional norms: a proscription from voting in general elections is one, and the nomenclature around ‘cashiering’ them another—under the language of ‘permanent leaves of absence’. These vestiges of hereditary prerogative (or the privileges of a separate ‘Estate of the Realm’, to which Disraeli often refers in Vindication of the English Constitution) ostensibly remain. Clarification on this issue is appreciated!

    • Lord Norton says:

      Stephen MacLean: You touch upon an important tension. On the one hand, working peers are expected to contribute to the work of the House, and one means of reducing the size of the House is to impose a minimum attendance allowance. On the other, the House derives its strength in large part from having members who have particular expertise or experience and it is especially useful if their expertise or experience is current rather than in the past. I think it is possible to set the bar on attendance at such a level as not to jeopardise that quality of membership. I would prefer an attendance criterion rather than impose an age limit as some of our best members are our oldest members.

      As is so often the case in the UK, we retain the old forms (such as peerages) but within them craft a new or different content.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I think a size roughly equal to the Commons is fine. It seems to be a little on the large size at the moment, but I’m sure it’ll reduce again, and with fixed-term parliaments, no more dissolution honours for five years!

    I’ve written before in favour of an attendance threshold. This, however, must be on previous years’ attendance, not future, or else you’ll have people turning up just to make the minimum, which will not only defeat the object, but also exacerbate the overcrowding.

    • Croft says:

      Jonathan: As the average parliament was four years the change to five will hardly make much difference to the quantity created by the dissolution honours list. It’s perfectly possible that the regular lists of working peers may just increase in size or frequency to compensate.

      LN: I can’t get very worked up about the size of the house. While I’m sure it’s an inconvenience for the members I do fear this is rather a Westminster bubble issue rather like the interminable discussion about constitutional change that the usual suspects bang on about in the commons every session. The polling on public concerns has always put such issues far to the bottom of priorities. I’m certain that of the tiny percentage of people that even know the size of the Lords not many are passionate about it as an issue.

      Certainly the recent news of the number of peers with London properties who were claiming the overnight allowance will have done an infinity greater damage and caused more people to wish change in the present arrangements than even a doubling the size of the present house could possibly ever cause.

  5. Carl.H says:

    I am more than a little perturbed that this subject seems to have now become all consuming for some members of the Lords. Yes it is of great importance but repeating oneself ad nauseum won`t help anything.

    The optimum number has been discussed previously and two figures seem to be the most popular, one being zero the other approximately five hundred. I am against an elected Lords and against PR or similar for reasons previously stated.

    I have not frequented the blogs so much lately not because of the World Cup but because we have great problems with our law and supportive authorities where errant teenagers are concerned, particularly my 16 year old grand daughter. After three arrests for over £5k worth of criminal damage including a burglary, evidence of drug taking and other anti social behaviour for which she has now received a final warning much to the disdain of myself and her parents, for leniency, we are at our wits end. At 16 and still under parental responsibility she feels she can do as she wishes and is currently living with a family of chavs who have no control and there is not a thing we can do. The Police do little, Social Services who have a problem with communication, namely parents inability to understand strong African accents, do nothing even though parents plead and evidence is provided of adverse effects to the children involved.

    This mish mash of law, children are able to do as they please at 16 but are still under parental responsibility but aren`t, are adult at 17 no wait 18, is ludicrous.

    The one thing I know as a parent is everyone has to have clear and concise rules The law is obscure as it is in a lot of things that need urgent attention for the sake of our society.

    Yes reform of the House is very important but it is not the only thing and should not be all consuming.

    • ladytizzy says:

      Carl, I completely understand your frustration with authority and systems. They seem to operate at one level – to make your life hell – and the feeling of injustice is heightened when the real problem is barely identified, let alone solved.

      Based on what you say above problems stem from one member of your family, and responses from the authorities are not what your sense of responsibility deems as sufficient, hence your frustration. Logic suggests that one of you is wrong-thinking and every authority will argue that it is you that is wrong – not them, and not your granddaughter. Even if laws were changed today, this would remain true.

      Laws and legislators and not the solution, they only enable or disable justice. It is up to you, me, and the public, to make the arguments for what is right-thinking.

      And that’s why we post comments here and elsewhere. It’s a start.

      • Carl.H says:

        So if it is not authority that is wrong in backing up parental control please explain why this occurred yesterday.

        Granddaughter was seen with another girl allegedly shoplifting and running from store security, I have that on good authority. I phone Police to inform them who it was, all inadmissable apparently because of the Data Protection Act. No action taken.

        Yesterday evening she was due before the Youth Offending Team for a final warning(after three arrests and many more warnings), she obviously had commitments elsewhere, see above, and didn`t show up. The Youth Offending Team will give her another chance, if they can find where she is due to the fact she is now sofa jumping.

        Now the problem maybe to do with family but how can we solve this if there is no authority and she seems to get away with whatever she chooses ? Even if a family member has been at fault why should society pay the price ?

        I am hearing more and more similar cases and it is absurd that it is being allowed to go like this.

      • ladytizzy says:

        You have possibly misunderstood my second paragraph. The point I was trying to make is that authorities and miscreants tend not to behave on the same wavelength that you and I are on. This often leads to the feeling that we are being treated as if we are the ones in the wrong even though we are not.

        When the miscreant is a child, the system tend to view him or her as a victim of the past and/or present because that is usually the root of their problems. For example (and that’s all it is!), they might consider that one of her problems is that granddad is too much of a disciplinarian for a troubled young girl. This does not make them right and you wrong, rather, albeit briefly, it typifies the mindset of those dealing with your granddaughter and might explain their attitude towards her, and her family.

        Even so, sometimes you need to step away to preserve your sanity. Use that time to study the opposition.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H; You effectively make the point that there are more important things in the world than worrying about the size of the second chamber. You make the point tellingly. I think we tend to get rather insular in our approach. Whenever I speak at schools, I ask if members of the audience know how many peers there are, and usually no one has the faintest idea.

  6. Teithiwr says:

    The size of the House should be based on the number needed for the House to fulfil its core functions effectively. In terms of an unelected Upper House this would seem to revolve mostly around issues related to oversight and legislation. The issue of representation is trickier for the Lords as they do not officially represent geographical areas or specific groups (e.g. specific reserved seats for ethnic minorities as other Parliaments have although it could be argued that the Bishops do represent the Church).

    Therefore, how many Members are needed to oversee the Executive effectively and to scrutinise legislation thoroughly? This very much depends on two factors – the first relates to the expected attendance of Members (i.e. rarely / part time / full time) and the internal working of the House, i.e. where does the majority of the legislative and oversight work take place – in the Chamber or in specific Committees etc. Once plans for improving the internal structures of the Lords are outlined and until the issue of expected attendance is clarified then it is difficult come up with a specific number.

    Is the number of Members important in terms of the role of the legislature within the wider governance structures of the UK? Yes. Is it an issue that keeps many citizens awake at night? Probably not.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Teithiwr: I very much agree – you make the point eloquently. We think we have too many members, yet when the case is made for more committees, we are told that we have to be careful because of limited resources (the cost in staff terms etc) and available members. As we increase in size, we shall have more members available to serve on committees – and committee work is now a core part of our work – though the cost will continue to be used (especially at the present time) in arguing against a significant expansion in the number of committees. We think to think more rationally along the lines you suggest.

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