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Insight paper

House of Lords reform: navigating the obstacles

The House of Lords is being undermined by uncontrolled prime ministerial appointments, the chamber’s growing size, and membership of hereditary peers

Meg Russell
House of Lords chamber

The House of Lords is being undermined by uncontrolled prime ministerial appointments and the chamber’s growing size, plus continued membership of hereditary peers – and “urgent” change in these areas is needed before more ambitious reform is attempted.

A guest paper by UCL's Meg Russell for the IfG/Bennett Institute Review of the U.K. Constitution sets out a series of reforms to the Upper House – some of which could be enacted without legislation. Noting the Conservative government’s ‘lack of action’ on Lords reform, the new report suggests that the next steps ‘may well’ fall to an incoming Labour government.

If so, the paper recommends that Keir Starmer follow Tony Blair’s 1997 approach of a two-stage reform – implementing small-scale changes immediately, while plans for a second stage – which may include Gordon Brown's proposals for more radical reforms – are developed.

This would include:

  • Reducing the size of the House of Lords to no greater than that of the House of Commons.
  • 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 by-elections or, more radically, remove these members altogether. A small number who are currently very active might be created life peers.

Meg Russell said:

‘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.’

House of Lords
Institute for Government

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