David Morris MP (Conservative) recently moved a motion in Westminster Hall on ‘Reforming the House of Lords and the number of peers’. Morris spoke of a need to reduce the current number of peers and proposed a ‘better way’ to slim down whole of the Lords to 250 members. He emphasised that “this debate is trying to find a way forward where we can still retain the Lords expertise and keep them there for life, as they were originally appointed to be”.
Morris framed the proposal by speaking about the current composition of the House of Lords. He pointed out that, according to the House of Commons library, the mean age of the 786 peers is currently 70.4 years old; and of the 20 most active members, excluding the Speaker, the mean average age stands at 64.9 – which (he commented) may suggest that younger peers are more active in the chamber.
Considering these facts, the proposal was for all Lords to retire at age 75. He also proposed that Lords aged 75 or over could then join a newly formed “Lords Council”, which would allow them to continue to attend functions and use facilities, and continue to receive remuneration. Members of the “Lords Council” would be able to sit on committees of their expertise and choice, and influence colleagues – but the distinction is that they would not be able to attend the chamber and vote.
The benefits given for this proposal were that it would ensure peers remained valued and their expertise was not lost, but that such a move would allow a sensible and tapered reduction in the number of sitting peers over a period of two decades.
|Lords spiritual (Bishops)||Total|
Recent reform and context
This is not the first discussion that has been held about reforming the House of Lords in recent years, but it is the first of the new Parliament.
Under the previous Coalition Government we saw two key attempts at reform:
– the House of Lords Reform Bill, which Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) withdrew in 2012, citing opposition from Conservative backbench MPs;
– the House of Lords Reform Act, which received Royal Assent on 14th May 2014. The successful Act allowed two key new provisions: the ability for a Member to retire from the House of Lords, and ability to expel a Member in specified circumstances (primarily those convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of one year or more).
John Penrose MP – the Minister for Constitutional Reform – was present at the recent Westminster Hall debate and welcomed the proposal from Morris. He said that he felt it’s “an area of debate that’s gone quiet in the last couple of years and needs to be reawakened”. It is also one that this Government has not expressed a sense of urgency in reinvigorating, when you consider the commitment outlined in their 2015 General Election manifesto – although it would be interesting to see if this stance would change if the opportunity to get closer to a majority presented itself:
We will ensure that the House of Lords fulfils its valuable role as a chamber of legislative scrutiny and revision
While we still see a strong case for introducing an elected element into our second chamber, this is not a priority in the next Parliament. We have already allowed for expulsion of members for poor conduct and will ensure the House of Lords continues to work well by addressing issues such as the size of the chamber and the retirement of peers.
– Conservative Party Manifesto (2015), p.49
Would this proposal work?
Whilst it’s likely that advocates of abolition or proponents of an elected house will find it difficult to muster support from the current Government, comments from Penrose suggest that the Government are open to new proposals for reform so long as they fit within the scope of the Conservative manifesto (see above) – something that Morris’ proposal seems to do comfortably.
It is worth considering whether Morris’ proposal would make a significant change when the main action it seems to propose is, put simply, removing speaking and voting rights in the House for some Peers, who would maintain all of the other privileges they already have access to. It’s not a proposal that would save money or seemingly make any drastic and timely difference to the current operation of the Lords; although it has the potential to change the composition. It is also worth considering that for a Government that doesn’t have a majority in the House of Lords, this proposal has the potential to ‘rebalance’ the chamber.
Whilst the choice of age may seem random there is some precedent, as it is also the age at which members of the Canadian Senate must retire, which is relevant as Canada is the closest model to the UK with an appointed upper house.
Public opinion of House of Lords in 2012 showed a greater prevalence of interest in reforming the way peers get a seat in the Lords (election and/or appointment), but this issue doesn’t seem to be something high on the agenda for this Government. It is however unclear to what extent the public have a comprehensive understanding of the role of the Lords, or how informed they are of other options for reform.
A call to action?
Penrose called for those interested in constitutional reform to start thinking about the House of Lords more seriously, stating that he was interested in hearing about “practical measures” for improvement. He encouraged MPs and Lords to get involved in conversations – which they have no doubt been doing for many decades – but I would hope that with any new and serious effort at reform, the public are also deeply involved.
Tell us what you think about Morris’ proposal and reform of the House of Lords. Comment below or tweet @demsoc #LordsReform
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Read some blog posts contributed by Peers at Lords of the Blog.