Packed and stacked

Philip HuntWith the government ready to create dozens more Peers, Phil Hunt outlines new proposals for membership of the House of Lords

Rumours are swirling around the corridors of the Lords that the government is poised to announce dozens of new peers. This is causing consternation amongst members already concerned that the House has too many members. And with huge pressure on facilities, it is often difficult to find enough room for all who come into the Chamber for the daily question time.

The former Liberal Leader, David Steel is so concerned that he has a motion for debate today calling for new peers to be prevented from taking their seats.

This is probably going too far and it is unlikely that the House will entertain a move which would stop the introduction of people who had already been appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. But underlying his motion, is a deep frustration from all sides in the Lords of the government’s failure to engage on sensible discussions about limiting the size of the House and balancing retirements with the need to bring in fresh blood. The failure of Nick Clegg’s Bill on substantive reform of the Lords makes the need for immediate action much more pressing.

Part of the problem stems from the Coalition Agreement that Lords appointments should be made with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the votes cast by the parties at the last election. As Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit has pointed out, this is completely unrealistic, and would result in the appointment of 269 new peers. And she adds it would be a ‘foolish and unsustainable’ course to pursue, as a rebalancing at each subsequent election would result in a second chamber whose size spiralled ever upwards.

It might be more justified if the government were losing every vote and not getting its core legislation thorough. But that is far from the case. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour was defeated on just over 30% of the votes. In this Parliament, the Coalition has been defeated on just over 20% of the votes.

Packing the Lords with Coalition peers would make government defeats much more unlikely. This in turn would jeopardise the immensely important revising role of the Second Chamber. The ability to apply pressure to make Ministers think again, whether through defeat, or the threat of it, is an important constitutional role of the Upper House.

My amendment to Lord Steel’s motion calls on the government to exercise restraint in new appointments. I am also asking for a retirement scheme to be introduced and for the exclusion of members convicted of a serious offense.

The Lords itself is very keen to work on a sensible plan to limit its size, and Ministers should show some leadership and enter into all-party talks to deliver a scheme. The Opposition is certainly willing to play its part.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Health is Labour’s Shadow Deputy Leader in the Lords

Published 28th February 2013

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