Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform First Report


PART 4: WHAT SORT OF COMPOSITION?

44. Composition needs to be understood against a number of interrelated factors which encourage the qualities of membership we have been discussing.

Number of members

45. We envisage that in order to retain the benefits of a House whose members are not necessarily full-time, salaried party politicians, the reformed House will have to remain at about the same size as the present House.

46. In the second stage of our inquiry we shall give further consideration to the exact eventual size of the House - something which will in any case depend on the number of spaces, if any, required for ex officio members such as law lords and bishops. At this stage we propose simply that the House should comprise about six hundred members. This represents little change from the present House without the 92 hereditary peers, but we recognise that transitional arrangements may necessitate an increase in size before equilibrium is reached.

Tenure

47. The present system of life membership encourages a high degree of independence, because members do not need to think at all about reappointment or re-election. A short tenure, by contrast, would limit the independence of all those members other than those with no wish for reappointment or re-election. That is not to say that all the arguments are in the direction of a very long tenure. At the end of a very long term, elected members might be seen to have lost the representativeness and legitimacy which they had at the time of their election. Members appointed on account of their particular background or expertise might have lost touch as a result of their service in the House.

48. A balance has to be struck, and our view is that a tenure for all members of some twelve years is about right. While members should be able to resign their seats earlier, we consider that members who do so should not thereby be able to stand for election to the House of Commons at least for a certain period, perhaps three years.

Appointment and election

49. Some of the options we set out below involve a mixed House of appointed and elected members, on the basis that neither arrangement on its own would produce the right blend of members. Some commentators have feared difficulties with a "mixed" House on account of certain members appearing to have greater "legitimacy" than others, but the House has for a considerable time been a mixture of appointed and hereditary peers. However, we do recognise that a significant element of elected, full-time members is likely to demand support and facilities which have not been sought in the past by members of the existing House.

50. One difficulty which may have been underestimated in the course of recent debate is that of gaining the interest of the electorate at a time of disappointing turnouts at all elections. Recent experience of, for example, elections to the European Parliament makes it doubtful whether there would be a substantial turnout, even for an election of the whole House. Consideration should be given to having full postal ballots and/or combining the elections with other elections - for example the elections to devolved institutions. Moreover, while it is one thing to ask the electorate to decide the entire membership of a second chamber, it is another to ask it to decide on only a proportion of the membership. Especially if the proportion is a small one, there is likely to be a feeling that the election does not matter much, and there must be a risk of very small turnouts and high votes for fringe candidates, both of which could imperil the reputation, legitimacy and effectiveness of the reformed second chamber.

An appointments commission

51. Getting the right balance in the matter of appointments is a difficult but vitally important matter. The Royal Commission opposed the use of political patronage: "Precluding any scope for political patronage is a basic element of our scheme for the composition of the second chamber. The abolition of such patronage is essential if the chamber is to have the legitimacy and confidence required."[55] But we do not take the view that all power should be removed from the Prime Minister and party leaders. There are cases - such as the appointment of a new member to serve as a Minister - where the exercise of prime ministerial nomination is perfectly justified. Equally it is important to ensure that appointments are made on an independent and widely respected basis.

52. The present arrangements do not, in our view, achieve the balance which we consider necessary and legitimate. There should be a new Appointments Commission established on a statutory basis, as the Royal Commission originally proposed.[56] However, that should not exclude the possibility of nomination by the Prime Minister of the day, nor proposals by party leaders and members of the public. All these nominations would be scrutinised by the new Appointments Commission. Only the Prime Minister would have the right to have nominations confirmed.

Methods of election

53. Most opinion concludes that, if the second chamber is to be different from the first - and we believe that it should - then the method of election needs to be different, and elections should be held on different dates from general elections. The context should not be the election of a government, and, in any case, without fixed-term Parliaments there would be practical difficulties. For example, the electoral systems recommended by the Commons Public Administration Committee (open regional lists or Single Transferable Vote) both have the advantages that they provide for much larger constituencies than for MPs, minimising the risk of overlap. "First-past-the-post", especially if applied to a smaller percentage of a smaller sized House, would both rule out minor parties and independents, and give an undue preponderance to the largest party.

Transitional arrangements

54. Since the nature of the reformed second chamber which we envisage is similar to the present House of Lords, it is desirable that there should be a smooth transition. It is generally accepted that the 92 hereditary peers should cease to be members, but it is equally generally accepted that transitional arrangements are needed to avoid an immediate exodus of the remaining members. The Royal Commission proposed that existing life peers should be able to continue in membership of the reformed House for life.[57] The Government, in Completing the Reform, accepted this recommendation, but noted (in the Supporting Documents which accompanied the White Paper) that this would lead to significant difficulties in the process of transition to a reformed House.[58]

55. We are conscious that retaining life membership for all existing life peers would mean that for some years a substantial (though decreasing) proportion of the House comprised an increasingly elderly group of survivors from the present House of Lords. On the other hand it would be difficult to devise a fair and workable means of removing existing members, who have been led to believe that their membership will be allowed to continue, and many of whom have planned their lives around a long-term commitment to membership. In the second stage of our inquiry we shall consider possible means of encouraging voluntary retirement and smoothing the transition. At this stage we have concluded only that we are not attracted by the idea of compulsory retirement for existing life peers.

Other matters

LAW LORDS AND BISHOPS

56. There are a number of issues which will need to be resolved regardless of decisions taken on the numbers of appointed and elected members in a reformed House of Lords. Prominent among these are the future membership of the law lords and of the Church of England bishops (and perhaps other religious representatives). We have already said that the question of a separation of the judicial role from the Lords is a complex matter worthy of an inquiry of its own.[59] Since decisions on these issues could complicate the process of choosing between different options, we have chosen to defer these matters until the second stage of our inquiry. This has the practical advantage of sparing us from answering a range of hypothetical questions, as the handling of the question of ex officio membership would vary with the numbers of appointed and elected members (and would not even arise if all the members were to be elected).

FINANCIAL CONSEQUENCES

57. The level of financial support for members of a reformed House is another important question which can appropriately be left until the broad outline of its composition is settled. We believe that elected members (inevitably with some representative role) would understandably expect better facilities and support than those which currently exist. It was only in 2001, following the acquisition of office space in Millbank House, that it became possible for all peers wishing to do so to have a desk. In most cases those desks are tightly packed with several in each room. Unless the number of members were to fall substantially, this situation could be significantly improved only by the acquisition or construction of additional office space in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster.[60]

58. There is provision for members to recover expenditure on secretarial help and research assistance, but the amount is linked to attendance and even for a member attending every sitting the annual limit would be under £10,000, far too little to permit the employment of a secretary or assistant. The level of research support offered by the Library is modest - a total of six research staff and three supporting staff at present. In both respects reform is likely to lead to pressure for change.

59. We note that there is little sign in the reform proposals produced by the Royal Commission, the Government or the Public Administration Committee that any work has been undertaken on the costing of those proposals. The present House costs under £60 million annually[61] (some £85,000 per member as against some £380,000 per member of the House of Commons). A reformed House could cost substantially more, mainly because of the need for better support and facilities for members. We consider it essential that some detailed work should be done on costing options.

THE NAME OF THE HOUSE AND ITS LINK WITH THE PEERAGE

60. Finally, the name of the reformed House, and its link (if any) with the concept of a peerage, are issues to which we will return at the next stage.


55   Royal Commission Report, paragraph 13.3. Back

56   Royal Commission Report, paragraphs 13.11 to 13.13 and Recommendation 83. Back

57   Excluding those created after the publication of its Report, who should become members for up to 15 years. Back

58   Government White Paper Completing the Reform, paragraph 94. Supporting documents, pages 69-73. Back

59   See paragraph 25 above. These matters are dealt with rather too sweepingly in the Commons Public Administration Committee Report, paragraphs 150 to 159. Back

60   Up to 45 further offices will become available for occupation in October 2004 as a result of the purchase in 2001 of Fielden House in Little College Street (House of Lords Annual Report 2001-02 (HL Paper 153), paragraph 55). Back

61   Expenditure in the financial year 2001-02 totalled £56,318,000, including the cost of purchasing Fielden House. Of this, £32,060,000 was in relation to peers' expenses and administration and £24,528,000 in relation to works services (House of Lords Annual Report 2001-02, Appendix E). Back


 
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