House of Lords reform

Think tank: The Constitution Unit

Author(s): Prof Meg Russell

March 2, 2023

This report from UK think tank the Constitution Unit looks at House of Lords reform.

The House of Lords is still an entirely unelected body, leading many to see it as an outdated throwback to earlier times. But the institution is in fact far more complex than that. It has evolved gradually over centuries and, notwithstanding its unusual composition, performs important scrutiny roles – often focusing on the detail of policy, and helping to hold the government to account. Nonetheless the chamber’s work is often undermined by controversies about its membership. This report discusses what the House of Lords does, summarises successful and unsuccessful proposals for reform in the past, explores public opinion about the House of Lords, and discusses what the key reform objectives and priorities should be. It also considers what experience from other bicameral (two chamber) parliaments can teach us. This shows that the House of Lords is far from unique in being more distant from the electoral process than the first chamber, or for attracting criticism. Many second chambers around the world are vigorously challenged, even where their members are elected.

Shortly before the preparation of this paper, the Commission on the UK’s Future, chaired for the Labour Party by former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had published its proposals. These recommended wide-ranging changes both to the UK’s devolution arrangements and to the House of Lords – to create an elected ‘Assembly of the Nations and Regions’. Meg Russell’s report therefore considers these proposals, alongside the other options for Lords reform. The report argues that the Brown commission’s proposals require significant further development and are likely to face challenge and resistance – including inside the House of Commons and the governing party. International experience shows that designing a second chamber to meaningfully represent a country’s territorial components is difficult, and is often seen to fail. The uneven nature of devolution in the UK adds to these challenges. In addition, the Brown report leaves many key questions open, including the electoral system, electoral boundaries, division of seats between areas, and terms of office for members of the second chamber, as well as whether it should include some appointed or indirectly elected members. Meanwhile, as the Brown report indicates, urgent changes are needed to the House of Lords. It is currently undermined by uncontrolled prime ministerial appointments, concerns about the quality of appointees, and the chamber’s growing size, plus continued membership of hereditary peers. Such problems could potentially be addressed by Rishi Sunak’s government now but, given inaction over Lords reform in recent years, these matters could remain unaddressed and fall to a future Labour government.

The report therefore recommends that while Labour should conduct careful consultation on large-scale reform of the House of Lords, if the party comes to power Keir Starmer should be prepared to immediately put in place an package of smaller-scale reforms – a number of which would not require legislation. These should include: Reducing the size of the House of Lords to no greater than that of the House of Commons. Introducing a transparent formula for new party appointments based on general election votes, with an additional 20% of seats reserved for independent Crossbenchers. Giving the House of Lords Appointments Commission new powers to vet party political peers and oversee the size of the chamber. Introducing legislation to deal with the hereditary peers, to either end the byelections or, more radically, remove these members altogether. A small number who are currently very active might be created life peers. Legislation could also enforce a one-off reduction in the number of peers based on votes in party (and other) groups, if a more gradualist approach was considered too slow.