Burns Commission proposes a smaller House of Lords, and how to get there

It’s time, once again, for another attempt at House of Lords reform. Late last year, the House debated a motion aiming to reduce the size of the House from its current 800-plus, and the Burns Commission, chaired by Crossbencher Lord Burns, a former mandarin, set to work. So, what are the proposals, and what are the potential issues?

Size

Six hundred peers is the figure that the Commission have alighted on, equivalent to that of the Commons if Boundary Commission proposals are adopted but, in any event, no more than the number in the Commons. This certainly addresses the concerns that the Lords is too big, although six hundred is still somewhat in excess of average daily attendance rate, but does potentially offer some ‘low hanging fruit’ in terms of easy reductions.

Distribution of cuts

It is suggested that each of the four main groups (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Crossbenchers) be reduced at equal rates, proportionate to their current strength. In principle, that appears reasonable, although a closer examination of age profiles amongst the different groups may expose potential issues.

New appointments

This is where things get interesting. It is suggested that, if the proposed targets for departures are met, either through death or retirement, new appointments would be made based on the average (mean) of the percentages of seats and votes won by each party at the most recent election.

A new group of peers would be appointed once a year, on the basis of “one in, two out”, so as to ensure progress towards the six hundred member target. New peers would be limited to a fifteen year term.

This wouldn’t be good for the Liberal Democrats on current figures, but would prevent any Government from packing the place in order to ram through its legislative programme. It would also potentially mean representation for smaller parties, such as the Greens, Nationalists and Northern Irish parties.

One obvious objection is to the loss of Prime Ministerial patronage, and seats in the Lords have often been a way of rewarding loyalists. Whilst the proposals wouldn’t entirely constrain that, they would create limitations, and Prime Ministers don’t often accept those.

Bishops and Hereditaries

This is likely to be controversial, in that the Bishops would retain their twenty-six seats, making them more influential, and the hereditaries would also remain at ninety-two. The latter present more problems for the Conservatives and Crossbenchers, as there are fifty hereditary Conservatives and thirty-one hereditary Crossbenchers (there are four Labour and five Liberal Democrats, it seems).

The desire to avoid a legislative solution means that challenging the 1999 settlement with regard to the hereditaries is an impossibility.

Independents and non-affiliated peers

The proposals rather sidestep these peers, suggesting that they might seek the shelter of their original groups. Frankly, I can’t see why any group obliged to reduce its numbers would be willing to jeopardise one of its loyal members in order to accommodate someone unable or unwilling to accept the whip, or who might have been expelled.

So, those are some initial thoughts and observations. The House will debate the proposals in due course, but here’s the Liberal Democrat initial response.

Of course, that’s the problem with the voluntary route for reform, you need everyone to buy into it…

Mark Valladares is Liberal Democrat Voice’s House of Lords correspondent.

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17 Comments

  • paul barker 31st Oct '17 - 4:46pm

    These proposals could be a (very small) wedge, opening the door to further Reform & we should back them on that basis, as a temporary step forward.

  • There is a musty feudal ‘stench’ about the House of Lords that can only be truly flushed from a 21st Century democracy, with a large hose pipe and plenty of cleansing water.
    Their unwarranted ermine pretence of specialness and their sense of elitist ‘better than thou, Lordship’ over the rest of us without any due democratic mandate, can only be erased by full on abolition.

    Talk of reforming the HoL is a pointless sideshow. This requires a radical root and branch pruning, because an unelected second chamber is frankly a rotting medieval leftover and an unnecessary layer of governance.

  • The proper size for the House of Lords should be zero. And England should have its own parliament alongside the other nations of the UK.

  • Tony Greaves 31st Oct '17 - 9:47pm

    This is not really about HoL reform, for which we must keep pressing but which is not on the current political agenda. It’s about practical ways of getting the House down to a more sensible size in ways that the House itself controls, and which h do not affect the basis of the current settlement. As such it is well worth doing.

  • Little Jackie Paper 31st Oct '17 - 10:38pm

    A massive reduction in the size of Parliament is long overdue. If anything needs a cut I’d put Parliament up the top of the list. Something in the order of 200 MPs and 75 Lords. Too much of what goes on in Parliament is just bloat.

    I would also like to see strictly enforced term-limits introduced for MPs, Lords and Councillors. And Special Advisers too for that matter.

  • Arnold Kiel 1st Nov '17 - 7:42am

    Sheffield Hallam is an excellent example of the superiority of generally electing the best people for the most responsible tasks FPTP. Who needs a second chamber of people with decades of proven records to ensure proper governance and quality legislation?

  • Eurgh.
    If it’s not getting rid of the bishops or the hereditaries, I’m afraid I don’t want to know.

  • There would surely be a frisson of delight if we were able to say to the Noble Lord Sugar and to the Noble business associate of those well known publishers, David Sullivan and David Gold, the Baroness Brady – “You’re fired”.

    I’d also be interested to know whether our former MP for Romsey, Sandra Gidley, has any views on whether there is a Lib Dem Lord should voluntarily retire given the current political furore.

    Sadly, whilst I agree in theory with Jennie about the Bishops, in practice they tend to be on the liberal wing of political opinion. Individually they would be something of a loss in these days of right wing austerity.

    What I expect is that as always the political establishment will have a fudge to suit themselves instead of having a directly elected second house based on PR.

  • Red Liberal 1st Nov '17 - 2:38pm

    @Alan Jelfs England having its “own parliament” is redundant – honestly, what else is the House of Commons by default? Having a sub-parliament for an area where 90%+ of the population of the UK live is unwieldy. Instead, we should have federal assemblies in the German mould, covering the various regions of England.

  • David: I think we must be thinking of different bishops. While they might be on the left economically, feeding the poor etc, they are definitely not liberal on a whole slew of other matters which are also important, such as women’s rights, LGBT+ rights, etc.

  • Mick Taylor 2nd Nov '17 - 8:04pm

    There’s only one major fault with the HoL. It’s not too big, it’s not inefficient, it does a good job, mostly. No it’s not elected. That is what we should be campaigning for. And when we do succeed perhaps we shouldn’t call it the HoL. Senate? Upper House? Suggestions please.

  • Not convinced on this. Reading through the document, it does seem that the 600 figure has been plucked out of the air with no real thought or regard to ways of working and identifying the real problems with the current system, other than to note there is currently no upper limit on the numbers of people who can be appointed to the HoL – but to what extent is this really a problem?

    Clearly, from the points Mark raises, no one involved in the proposal had any mathematical modelling ability as otherwise there would have been greater analysis and empirical basis to the number selected and how a fair reduction in numbers could be achieved.

    One aspect of this that isn’t being discussed, but Mark sort of alluded to with his comment ” although six hundred is still somewhat in excess of average daily attendance rate, but does potentially offer some ‘low hanging fruit’ in terms of easy reductions.” is that an anticipated consequence of this change is to encourage higher levels of attendance from members and thus change membership from a civic duty with a daily attendance allowance to a full-time job with a salary and benefits package – which we know will greatly increase costs over today’s arrangements.

    From a here-and-now perspective, I suggest if the Commons feels, with 650 members, it is unable to handle the workload of Brexit then given the greater level of scrutiny undertaken by the HoL, a 600 member HoL will be even less able to look after the best interests of the UK.

  • This proposes that by 2042 all the exiting members of the House of Lords will have been replaced with new ones who serve for a maximum of 15 years (a one term of 15 years). If we object to the size of the House of Lords and think its members should only serve a fixed 15 year term then this can be seen as an improvement. It should make making it an elected chamber much easier after 2042 as nearly a third of members will be replaced every 15 years and instead of being appointed most can then can be elected. Leaving the Crossbenchers and bishops in the House of Lords is not ideal but at least takes them out of the equation and they can be reformed after 2042 or even after 2057. It should be remembered that the idea of an elected (or partly elected) House of Lords has been party policy since 1910 and as we have already waited 107 years we surely can wait another 50 years. The alternative might well be no agreement passed 2057.

  • “New peers would be limited to a fifteen year term.”

    Well, David Steel was appointed to the Lords in June 1997, so would have completed his term in 2012; his private members bill that became the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, began its journey in May 2012.

    So immediately we (once again) have evidence of just how cursory the research and thinking behind the recommendation is.

    I, therefore, have to seriously question why any Libdem would support a fifteen year term.

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Nov '17 - 7:02pm

    Roland, I think the 600 figure was chosen on the grounds that that is the notional figure the Commons ‘should’ be under the stalled redistribution of seats legislation. This fits with the idea that the Lords should be filled on the basis of the ‘average’ of votes and seats. Not saying it’s a good idea. But nominally, the HoC is supposed to be 600 already.

  • Matt (Bristol), I agree it does seem the Burns Commission proposals are more about appearances and fitting a predefined, but not disclosed agenda, than trying to answer the question what do we actually need to have for an effective second chamber in modern Britain – with an eye more to the future than to the past.

  • I don’t know where the one term of 15 years came from. I think it was a Nick Clegg idea! I don’t support it as I haven’t seen any rational argument for it. I would like the second chamber to be mostly elected and would want to encourage young people to stand. This means they should be able to have a career in the second chamber as they can in the Commons. This means there should be no term limits.

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