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Reduce House of Lords to 600 Members, says committee

31 October 2017

The Lord Speaker's committee on the size of the House of Lords has recommended the House be reduced to 600 Members, and its size capped at that number, in a move that would - for the first time in history - establish a maximum size of the House of Lords and link its composition to general election results.

The committee believe this system, which is driven by the House's desire to reduce its numbers, would result in the House making an even more effective contribution to the work of Parliament. The Committee was chaired by Lord Burns and had members from all parties and the crossbenches.

Action plan

The committee sets out an action plan that would allow the House of Lords to achieve these outcomes without legislation. Key elements include:

  • The House of Lords would be reduced by a quarter to 600 members. The size would then be capped at that number. The House would reach the target of 600 Members in just over a decade. A House of Lords capped at 600 Members would be smaller than the current House of Commons.
  • New Members would be appointed on 15 year terms and give an undertaking to leave the House after that period. Failure to do so would be a breach of the Code of Conduct.
  • No party would be allowed an absolute political majority and a minimum of 20% of seats would be reserved for independent crossbench Members largely appointed by the House of Lords Appointment Commission.
  • Political appointments should be shared between the parties in line with the result of the previous general election, defined as an average of the parties' share of the national vote and of the seats won in the House of Commons. The combination of this formula and the 15 year term limit would ensure the future make-up of the House of Lords reflected the political views of the country over the medium term.
  • An accelerated ‘two-out, one-in' programme of departures until the House reached the target size of 600, with half of the departures contributing to the reduction and the other half being replaced with new appointments. Each party would be asked to contribute the same proportion of its current membership each year towards the target.

Lord Speaker's comment

Welcoming the report Lord Fowler, who as Lord Speaker set up the Committee, said:

"This is the House of Lords reforming itself. It is being done without the benefit of legislation and relies on the agreement of members of the House. The inquiry itself was set up after a debate on the floor of the House which called for a reduction in the number of peers. The committee itself has members from all three parties and the crossbenches and was unanimous.
"The House of Lords carries out vitally important work in holding the government of the day to account. However with over 800 members - about 150 more than the Commons - we are too large. The time has now come to take action to correct this and put a cap on numbers for the future.

"This report presents the Lords with an important opportunity. 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.
"I should emphasise that if the system the committee proposes is to succeed it will require political agreement from the main parties and of course the Prime Minister herself. I very much hope that will be forthcoming after everyone concerned has had the opportunity to study the report. My hope is that there will be a "take note" debate before Christmas and more detailed consideration of the specific measures in the New Year.

"Lastly I would like to thank Lord Burns and his colleagues for a quite exceptional piece of work which has been put together after many hours of taking and reading evidence and detailed consideration. They have done the House and I hope the public a great service. It is now up to we the members to make progress."

Chairman's comment 

Lord Burns, Chairman of the committee said:

"The committee has proposed a radical yet achievable solution to the excessive size of the House of Lords, which the House itself agreed needed to be tackled urgently

"Our proposals would see the numbers come down to 600 and stay there, while also allowing the membership to be refreshed and to reflect changing public opinion over time.

"This is one of the most complicated issues that my fellow members and I have ever faced. 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.

"I urge the Prime Minister, the party leaders and all Members of the House of Lords to engage with what we have proposed and seize this realistic opportunity to tackle a problem which has defied resolution for so long."

The committee has deliberately made recommendations that can be achieved without legislation. All the changes it proposes can be delivered by the House and the Prime Minister, with the cooperation of the political groups in reducing their number of Members. 

Other potential changes that could impact on the size of the House such as a reduction in the number of Bishops or an end to hereditary peer by-elections would require new legislation and are therefore outside the committee's remit.

The committee does say the Government may wish to consider whether it would be sustainable for hereditary by-elections to continue in a smaller House as it would lead to hereditary Members making up a greater proportion of the House and in particular of the Conservative and Crossbench groups.

Image: Copyright House of Lords 2016 / Photography by Annabel Moeller