Today, the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House of Lords recommended that 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.
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.
Bishops in the House of Lords
Welcoming the report Lord Fowler, who as Lord Speaker set up the Committee, said [emphasis added]:
“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 report states [at page 2]:
“Unless Parliament legislates to end the by-elections, our proposed system for new peers would treat life peers and hereditary peers in exactly the same way: they would be required to retire after 15 years. The only difference between them is that the life peers would be appointed and the hereditary peers selected through a by-election. Similarly, in the absence of legislation, the number of Bishops would be unaffected.
And [at page 12]
“Archbishops and Bishops
. Similarly, the number of Lords Spiritual (26 Archbishops and Bishops, who must retire from their posts at the age of 70) could only be reduced through primary legislation. Accordingly we make no proposals in respect of the Lords Spiritual, while noting that like hereditary peers they will make up a larger proportion of a smaller House”.
At the debate at which the House of Lord agreed the motion that its size should be reduced, 5 December 2016, Vol 777 Col 500, the Bishop of Birmingham said inter alia [Col 510]:
“My main point today is to remind us that the Lords spiritual have been capped by statute since the middle of the 19th century to the number of 26. Also, there is automatic retirement at the moment that a Bishop leaves their see or at the age of 70. Following the excellent reminder from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, the Convenor of the Cross Benches, we are unusual in that we are appointed by the Almighty and dismissed by the Almighty but with time for amendment of life before we have to face the Almighty. Clearly, while we remain in the House we do so with enthusiasm, participating on the basis of our full-time jobs in the regions. In the context of this debate, we fully participate in a sense of proportionality, in that the size of this Bench should be in proportion to the size of your Lordships’ House in future”.
In our post we commented that whilst Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab) was critical of the attendance record of the bishops, [Col 547], Lord Lisvane (CB), was more complementary, [Col 548].
Earlier plans for a reform of the House of Lords were to be dropped, following the statement of the Deputy Prime Minister, (DPM), on 6th August 2012, reported here. At that time, we suggested that the position of the Church of England on the reform of the House of Lords and the possible directions it might then take may be gleaned from its written submission, (GS MISC 1004), to the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill and the oral evidence of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Joint Committee on 15 November 2011.
Then, as now, the Church of England was afforded an opportunity to revisit the involvement of the Bishops in the Upper House. However, any reductions on the bishops benches would need to take the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015 into consideration and how these might affect the progress towards an equal number of women bishops within ten years. We await developments with interest.