House of Lords should be cut to 600, report suggests

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The House of Lords should be reduced in size by a quarter to no more than 600 members, with new peers limited to 15-year terms, a long-awaited report into the future of the upper chamber has recommended.

The report by a committee set up in December last year by the Speaker of the Lords, Norman Fowler, said that to maintain confidence in the chamber it must for the first time be given a maximum size.

The Lords has more than 700 members, excluding bishops, making it the world’s second largest legislative body after China’s People’s Congress.

The recommendations by a committee led by Terence Burns, a crossbencher who was formerly the Treasury’s top civil servant, says the reduction in numbers would involve a “two out, one in” policy for all parties.

While the numbers would eventually fall to 600, smaller than the House of Commons, this would not happen before 2027, according to the report. Numbers would then stabilise at 574, making 600 when bishops are included.

The report also recommends a maximum term in the Lords of 15 years for any newly appointed members. The party makeup would be managed to make sure no one group had a majority, with at least 20% of peers being non-partisan crossbenchers.

Norman Fowler, the Lord Speaker





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Norman Fowler, the Lord Speaker. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images

Future appointments to the Lords, rather than being purely at the discretion of the government, would be shared between parties based on an average of the vote share at the last election and the total number of Commons seats won. This would, the report said, make sure the Lords “reflected the political views of the country over the medium term”.

Under the ‘two in, one out” system of removing peers, each party would be asked to contribute in accordance with their current proportion of members.

Lord Fowler, formerly a Tory cabinet minister as Norman Fowler, said the report “presents the Lords with an important opportunity” to reform itself.

He said: “A smaller, more effective house will be able to build public confidence and support for its crucial constitutional role in checking bills before they become law and in reviewing policy through their hard-working select committees.”

Pushing the changes through would, he noted, need the support of Theresa May and the leaders of other parties.

Lord Burns said the proposals were a “radical yet achievable” answer to a hugely complex subject, and urged party leaders to engage with it, to avoid the need for reform through legislation.

He said: “While no set of proposals will ever be perfect, we believe that ours would provide a fair solution, which could prove sustainable for as long as this remains an appointed chamber.”

New rules came into force in 2014 making it easier for peers to retire when they are no longer able to attend or want to concentrate on other matters.

More than 30 peers have retired in the past 18 months, include theatre impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, former deputy Labour leader Roy Hattersley and former home secretary Douglas Hurd.

The Lords has 252 Conservatives, 199 Labour peers, 100 Liberal Democrats, 181 crossbenchers, 24 bishops and 43 others.

The Commons Speaker, John Bercow, has called it absurd that the unelected House of Lords is substantially larger than the 650-member elected House of Commons, and has said he thinks its membership should be cut in half to about 400.

All but 92 hereditary peers were removed from the Lords in 1999. Previous attempts to reduce the size of the Lords have generally been tied in to wider efforts at changing the format of the chamber, for example to make it partly elected, which have tended to founder amid the complexity of the task. Introducing the report, Fowler said that with wider Lords reform proposals halted for now, it was seen as a good opportunity for the Lords to change itself.

Burns said the committee had held talks with the leaders of the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems in the Lords and had been encouraged by the response. Peers were due to discuss the report in December, he said, and if they seemed supportive he expected the parties to back it.