Skip to main content

House of Lords: Size

Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to limit the size of the House of Lords.

My Lords, given retirements and other departures, some new Members are essential to keep the expertise and the outlook of the Lords fresh. This will ensure that the Lords continues to fulfil its role in scrutinising and revising legislation while respecting the primacy of the Commons.

Can the Minister confirm that in the past 12 months the Prime Minister has appointed 59 new Peers, bringing our total membership to 833, and that, if we continue at anything like this rate, by the end of a five-year Parliament there could be close to 1,000 Peers? Given that this House has suggested practical ways to reduce our numbers, will the Government work with us to achieve this or, if not, is it really government policy to increase our size with no upper limit whatever?

My Lords, the Government’s concern is that the House of Lords operates effectively, as I believe it does. The noble Lord who asked the question was a private secretary to a previous Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, between 1997 and 2001, when more than 200 Peers were sent to your Lordships’ House. Perhaps it was that painful experience that makes him so militant on this subject.

My Lords, following the constructive report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, can the Government consider the proposal that when the Prime Minister appoints new Peers, only a small amount of them are legislators, thus considerably limiting the House’s next intake of new Members?

My Lords, my noble friend raises implicitly the question of whether some Peers who are not legislators might be appointed. This idea has been put forward at various times historically. Currently, the position is that they are.

My Lords, when we last debated this issue on 5 January, the Minister said that neither the present nor the previous Prime Minister had assented to any limit on numbers, but the previous Prime Minister did agree to exercise restraint in appointments to the House in response to the Lord Speaker’s letter following the Burns report as part of an overall acceptance of the need to reduce numbers. Is that no longer the Government’s policy?

What I said, which I repeat, is that the previous Prime Minister did not accept the committee’s recommendation to commit to a specific cap on numbers, and that remains the position. My right honourable friend Mr Johnson has only recently become Prime Minister. I suggest that we judge him at the end of his term rather than at this time, when, frankly, the Conservative Party has been underrepresented in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, a recent Times editorial, entitled “House of Cronies”, referred to the high proportion of Brexiteers and Tory donors among the 59 new Peers already made by the Prime Minister, in particular the nomination of a Tory donor guilty of corruption and rejected by the Appointments Commission. Does the Prime Minister not recognise that he is tempting any future non-Conservative Government to appoint inflated numbers to balance the old number? Is the Prime Minister really trying to make the House look ridiculous?

Absolutely not, my Lords. The perception of the House depends on the behaviour and conduct of the House. I am not going to follow, as I refused to before, any kind of ad hominem attack on any new Member—I welcome them all. As for the comment on Brexiteers, I did not notice a surfeit of those before the last election.

The Prime Minister has clearly reneged on the agreement of his predecessor to help curb the size of the House of Lords. He recently overruled the Appointments Commission over a major donor to his party. What does the Minister estimate to be the effect on the House of Lords of the recently announced plans to increase the maximum permitted expenditure by political parties in general elections by a massive 69%?

I may be a little obtuse but I do not see the direct connection between general election expenditure and the House of Lords. The House of Lords, for which I have great reverence, is, contrary to many of the things said publicly, extremely good value for the outstanding service that it gives to the country.

My Lords, while I certainly support a smaller second Chamber, does the Minister appreciate the frustrations of those of us in smaller parties at the way in which the present arrangement systematically prevents such parties having as numerically strong a voice as they could expect under direct election? To enhance the second Chamber and reduce its size in a fair manner, direct elections would be a credible way forward.

My Lords, I salute the noble Lord for his service to his party and his nation in this House. One of the pleasures that I have had at the Dispatch Box—it has not always been easy—has been hearing the very strong voice for Wales in this House, not only from the noble Lord’s party but from the Benches opposite and other parts of the House. I understand his point. Obviously, one major party, the Scottish National Party, does not offer nominations.

My Lords, is it not time that we started again at the beginning and the Government decide what they want a second Chamber to do and how it should be constituted, and then decide on the numbers?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a strong point. The role and performance of the House are fundamental to the perception of the House, as I said earlier. That is much deeper than some of the froth on this Question and a matter to which not only the Government but all of us need to direct our attention. We are a revising Chamber, and it is as that that we merit our place and reputation.

My Lords, I find myself in unusual agreement with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. The fact is that form should follow the function of this House. It is about not some academic interest in the size of the House, but the optimum size and balance between the party groups that allows us to do our work most effectively. We can be effective as a House and helpful to the Government, as is evident in the number of amendments passed by your Lordships’ House that the Government agree to and put into legislation. I put it to the Minister that if the Prime Minister’s approach is to continue to prioritise the appointment of Government-supporting Peers, that balance fails and the value of the House falls. They cannot just ram through legislation with ever-increasing government numbers. Does the Prime Minister respect the role and value of your Lordships’ House?

I am certain that my right honourable friend respects the role and place of your Lordships’ House, as, I believe, for all the difficulties that there have been at times, previous Prime Ministers of all parties have. It is reasonable that the House of Lords has been refreshed. As long as it is a nominated House, that should remain the case. On the question of 600 Members, which is often mentioned, I remind your Lordships that there have only been two Divisions in your Lordships’ House since 2015 in which more than 600 people voted.

My Lords, it is long accepted that the House of Lords is a self-regulating Chamber. Does the Minister therefore agree that the House can itself implement its collective wish that the number of participating Peers be limited?

My Lords, this was brought up in a previous exchange, I believe by the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme. The problem with the proposition posited by the noble Baroness is that an unelected House should determine who should become its Members and how many there should be. I am afraid that this is a House of Parliament, not a gentlemen’s club and the membership of the House must, at the end of the day, have political accountability. The line of political accountability goes to the Queen’s principal adviser, who is the incumbent Prime Minister.