Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report

Size of the Second Chamber


* There should be a statutory cap on the total size of the House of 600 members, to come into force after 10 years (para 91)

* The maximum target size during the transition should be 750, declining to 600

* In any rebalancing, the first duty of the Appointments Commission should be to achieve a lead for the governing party over its main opposition (para 93)[68]

160. The White Paper proposes a statutory limit on the size of the second chamber. We believe that this is the right approach, and a distinct advance on the Royal Commission proposal which would leave the numbers unlimited.

161. By international standards the UK legislature and in particular the second chamber is very large. The 600-member reformed house proposed in the White Paper would still be by a big margin the biggest second chamber in the world. Only five others have more than 200 members.

162. There have been many calls for a smaller house. The Conservative Party has advocated an eventual second chamber of 300 members, and the Liberal Democrats have followed suit.[69] Similar numbers were supported by many in the House of Commons debates.

163. There are a number of very sound arguments in favour of a small second chamber. For instance, it is said that co-operation between members is better in smaller chambers than in large ones. A small, expert, well-resourced house might also be preferable as a revising chamber to a larger body in which each member has little support. The public is also likely to be in favour of limiting the number of politicians.

164. Against this runs the feeling, which is strongly held in the House of Lords, that to maintain its expertise on a wide range of subjects the House needs to continue to allow at least some of its members to work part-time.

165. It is also hard to imagine that national and regional representatives, and some of the more diverse membership we propose, will find it easy to attend Westminster full-time. The second chamber should be flexible enough to accommodate these members.

166. The statistics reveal that only a minority of peers are currently active in the House of Lords. In the current Session, 25 per cent of peers had asked 87 per cent of the Questions and made 76 per cent of the speeches and interventions.[70] This suggests that a smaller House need not suffer a diminution of expertise.

167. We have considered this issue, as we have others, with accountability in mind. We see a continuing role for expertise in the chamber. Thus we believe that part-time membership should continue to be possible. That implies a somewhat larger chamber than would otherwise be the case. However, we believe that the size proposed by the Government is far too large, and unnecessarily so.

168. We recommend that the size of the second chamber when all elected members have joined should be clearly established and that it be set at up to 350. This figure would be very much the upper limit of the acceptable range.

169. However these are obstacles to true part-time membership. There are increasing pressures towards more frequent attendance. Whipping is becoming more demanding in the existing chamber, and there are more committees. In addition, the presence of a number of elected members will undoubtedly change the nature of the chamber and encourage the sense that members have a full-time job. This is an issue that the chamber should keep under regular review during the transitional period.

170. The Committee is also concerned at evidence that some peers are not as assiduous in their attendance as they might be. Two of the new peers appointed by the interim Appointments Commission had yet to make their maiden speeches nine months after creation. Recent research from the Review Body on Senior Salaries suggests that over 30 per cent even of the part-reformed House attend less than a quarter of its sittings.[71] This is one of the results of confusing a job with an honour. The arrival of a substantial elected element will inevitably, and not unfairly, increase pressures for measures to encourage members to achieve some minimum level of commitment and attendance. Given the complexity of the changes that have already happened in the second chamber, and of those in prospect, a number of the issues raised in this report will need to be reviewed at some point. We believe that it would be useful for matters such as the size of the chamber, the elected proportion and part-time membership to be discussed again when the maximum number of elected members are in place.

171. We therefore recommend that a review of the effect of these changes should be held when the maximum number of elected members have entered the second chamber.

68   Cmd 5291 Back

69   See footnote 22 Back

70   Figures provided by House of Commons Library Back

71   Cmd 4997, March 2001 Back

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Prepared 14 February 2002