Published on 3 March 2023
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The next Labour government must focus on achievable House of Lords reform

The Conservative government’s ‘lack of action’ on Lords reform suggests that the next steps ‘may well’ fall to an incoming Labour government, says Meg Russell, Constitution Unit, UCL.

If Labour wins the next election it should immediately act to reduce the size of the House of Lords, overhaul how peers are appointed and end the representation of hereditary peers, says a new guest paper by Professor Meg Russell for the Institute for Government and Bennett Institute’s Review of the UK Constitution.

Arguing that the House of Lords is being undermined by uncontrolled prime ministerial appointments and the chamber’s growing size, plus continued membership of hereditary peers, the report calls on party leaders to ensure “urgent” change in these areas before attempting major reforms.

Published today, House of Lords reform: navigating the obstacles says the Conservative government’s ‘lack of action’ on Lords reform suggests that the next steps ‘may well’ fall to an incoming Labour government. If Labour does come to power, and these urgent changes have not yet been implemented, then the paper recommends that

Keir Starmer follows Tony Blair’s 1997 approach of a two-stage reform – implementing small-scale changes immediately, while plans for a second stage are developed.

The report argues that Gordon Brown’s proposals to replace the House of Lords with an elected ‘Assembly of the Nations and Regions’ require further development and are likely to face challenge and resistance – including inside the House of Commons and the Labour party. Therefore, the paper recommends that, if he becomes prime minister, Starmer should consult on large-scale reform but immediately put in place an initial package of reforms – a number of which would not require legislation.

This would 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.

Says Meg Russell:

‘The commission chaired for Labour by Gordon Brown described the House of Lords as “indefensible” and proposed radical reform. But history and international experience shows that radical reform is difficult to achieve, while the specific elements criticised by Brown – the chamber’s size, excessive prime ministerial appointments and presence of hereditary peers – could be dealt with very swiftly. Even in the Lords itself there is widespread agreement that these smaller changes are urgently needed, and some can be achieved by a Prime Minister without legislation. So if Labour wants to be sure of progress on Lords reform, it should implement these small changes immediately, while consulting on the options for larger-scale reform.’

Report: House of Lords reform: navigating the obstacles

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

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