Reduction in size of House of Lords?

Last night, the Facebook page of the House of Lords carried the following statement from the Lord Speaker. A full report of the debate is at 5 December 2016, Vol 777 Col 500.

This evening, the House of Lords agreed the motion that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved.

Following the debate the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, said:

‘The House of Lords today has made a unique statement, by members themselves agreeing unanimously that it should be smaller. This is a significant step forward and represents a substantial consensus. It shows that Members of the Lords want reform and see the present size of over 800 as an obstacle in the way of the effective running of the House.

‘Now that the House has agreed that its size needs to be reduced, we must now work towards proposals on how this can be achieved.’


The Bishop of Birmingham, as convenor of the Lords Spiritual, spoke in the debate and pointed out [Col 510]  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.

…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.”

 The comment of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab) [Col 547]:

“If one looks at the figures, one sees that some Peers attend less than 10% of the time, a lot of whom I could name. In fact, the worst attenders are the Cross-Benchers and the Bishops. They are hardly ever here compared with others”,

was greeted by “Oh!” from the Noble Lords. More complimentary was Lord Lisvane (CB), who said [Col 548]:

“Nearly 150 years later, we may reasonably amend that to say that the cure for criticising the House of Lords is to go and look at it: to see exacting scrutiny of legislation, not just of primary legislation but crucially, and uniquely, of the huge body of secondary legislation; exploration of subjects that the House of Commons, for very good reasons, does not have the time to debate—the debate initiated by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on Friday is an excellent example of that—authoritative examination of policies and issues through an energetic and respected Select Committee system; and the ability to ask the House of Commons to think again without challenging the primacy of that House. However, for so many people outside this Chamber, those roles are seen through the prism of size, and the value of those roles is thus obscured or dismissed. We therefore need to deal with this issue, and we need to be seen to be dealing with it ourselves”.

Given the “unique statement, [made] by members themselves”, we would expect that the Church of England will issue a formal statement regarding the conclusion reached by their Lordships.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Reduction in size of House of Lords?" in Law & Religion UK, 6 December 2016,

15 thoughts on “Reduction in size of House of Lords?

  1. The House of Lords should mirror the commons in numbers of active Peers – perhaps they should have an internal selection process for those who are entitled to sit and to vote and participate in debates. After all, this is a glorified Gentleman’s club for some and a guaranteed source of pocket money for turning up.

    There is scope for faith representation wider than the Bishops, but it’s unlikely that this will happen in the short to medium term.

    If the Lords is to continue to have any relevance, reform is needed, and not before time too. The House of Commons is to be reduced to 600 in the next proposed round of changes to constituency boundaries, the Lords will have to mirror this.

  2. I question why we even have a bicameral system any more.
    Other countries cope very well with a unicameral system – why not the UK?
    It would probably require the introduction of special departmental select committees in the single chamber which would preview, monitor and review all policy and legislation.
    If that means MPs having to do a proper job of work, then so be it!

  3. I suspect that John is correct. The preview, monitor and review functions of the Upper House should either be an administrative function or it should be carried out by democratically elected persons.

    Disestablish the C of E (as we did in Wales in 1920) and create a modern and democratic, elected Upper House which by law can be no larger than the Lower House
    scrap the Upper House and create a Department of Legislative Review.

    About half of the sovereign nations of the world are unicameral including Sweden, Denmark, Norway and New Zealand – hardly inefficient or backward democracies.
    We have more than enough parliaments and assemblies in the United Kingdom.

    • I’ve got no enthusiasm at all for the House of Lords in its present format – and it’s certainly far too big. But I have even less for a Department of Legislative Review, which is not a proposal I’ve ever seen before.

      The problem with that is that it would mean a Department of State reviewing legislation: so how would that play against any concept of the separation of powers? We already have a fused Executive and Legislature, but we at least try to preserve Parliamentary control over primary legislation. If a Government Department were to take over the revising functions of the Lords, it would (in my view, at least) give ministers far too much power over the detail of legislation: in my experience, they have too much of that already. And existing supervision of secondary legislation is already virtually non-existent.

      • That is why I suggested special departmental select committees comprised by individual MPs to scrutinise the work of ministers and departments of state on behalf of the electorate. Their reports would assist MPs during Question Times in the single House of Parliament. It should be possible to get the select committees to review secondary legislation as well, provided they have independent administrative backup of their own.

        • Quite apart from the fact that select committees are quite busy enough already, the point about secondary legislation is that it’s unamendable: more secondary legislation means a greater limitation on the power of Parliament to impose its own views on the Executive. But did you mean a Department of Legislative Review as part of Parliament rather than as a Government Department? If so, what would that add to the current system apart from more Commons staff to conduct scrutiny? While that may be a desirable thing in itself, there would still be the limiting factor of the amount of time MPs have available to deal with things: a lot of their time is taken up by constituency casework.

          On balance, I’d still prefer a second chamber with revising powers – but not, emphatically not, the House of Lords as at present constituted.

          • A Department of Legislative Review was not my idea.
            I prefer House Committees, special select committees, to take on the same role as the committees in the US legislative process, where they do get consulted about legislation before it is passed. They also maintain a watching brief on policy and implementation, and – finally – carry out reviews as to the effectiveness of policy and legislation.
            Yes, that does represent more work than our MPs do at the present time but as Sir Malcolm Rifkind told Daily Telegraph reporters: “You’d be surprised how much free time I have. I spend a lot of time reading, I spend a lot of time walking.” He rather proves my point that MPs do have more time with which to do a better job than now. Let them do it.

  4. The issue of separation of legislature and executive is entirely understandable. But what is the process of monitor and review of which we speak? If it is “technical” – that is – making the draft unambiguous, clear and non-contradictory both within itself and as between other legislation, this surely is an administrative task. If it is about challenging the legislation in a political sense (something frequently taken upon itself by the Upper House) then this should be debated by our democratically elected representatives through the several readings in the democratically elected chamber.

    • I think it is both an administrative and a political task. From my worm’s-eye view in the Commons Clerk’s Department, it always struck me that the Government (assuming it had a working majority) had an immense amount of control over the legislative process – and I wouldn’t like to see that control increased. Least of all would I like to see civil servants amending draft legislation by fiat.

      My quarrel is not with dismantling the House of Lords as at present constituted; it’s about the need for a second chamber with revising powers. There’s no reason why that second chamber couldn’t be democratically elected if there were the political will to carry out the necessary reforms.

  5. A lot of legislation is poorly thought-out and poorly implemented.
    It is only long afterwards that Members in the House of Commons get to learn this.
    This is why there should be much better scrutiny of proposed legislation, as well as ongoing scrutiny, with legislative changes being introduced on a more timely basis.
    Ultimately, there should also be a process of reviewing of the implementation of legislation as a means towards ensuring that future legislation is refined and improved.
    As it is, the learning cycle process is poorly implemented by the legislature.
    That is why a single chamber operating on a more professional basis is so needed.
    Many of the people in the second chamber are there mainly to have influence upon government policies and implementation, with a view to filling their own pockets.
    Martin Williams’ book “Parliament Ltd. – A Journey to the Dark Heart of British Politics” provides many examples of MPs and Peers who spend most of their time in Parliament solely promoting their own personal interests and not acting in the common interest.

  6. Pingback: Lords Reform and the Bishops | Law & Religion UK

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