UK Politics

Too many peers 'undermines role of Lords' says new Speaker

Media captionLord Fowler: "By the next election we should be at a number that is just less than the House of Commons"

Ongoing rows about the size of the House of Lords are undermining the role of the chamber as a "defender of the public interest", according to its newly elected Speaker.

Lord Fowler, who served in a variety of cabinet roles under Margaret Thatcher and Sir John Major, made the comments in his first television interview since taking office as Lord Speaker on 1 September.

"Every time you make a point and make a case for the House of Lords, people come back and say, but surely you're so big.

"Therefore the sooner we can tackle that, the better it would be for our reputation."

The number of peers now exceeds 800, with former prime minister David Cameron appointing 13 new Conservatives to the chamber in his resignation honours list.

Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption There are over 800 members of the House of Lords

In draft proposals published this week, the House of Commons would see its membership cut from 650 to 600 to cut the cost of politics and even-out the size of parliamentary constituencies.

Lord Fowler says that the reduction in the number of MPs should spur peers on to come to a consensus about how to reduce their numbers.

"I think the government might take notice of the fact that there is a big feeling here that the House is too big.

"I'm not going to advocate a particular solution. But what I do think is that we might make it a goal, that by the next election, we should be at a number that is just less than the House of Commons.

"I think that it's quite difficult to support a system whereby we are 200-odd more than the Commons itself."

'Fantastic work'

Fifty peers have taken advantage of an option to retire from the chamber since 2014.

Lord Fowler also argues that the House of Lords does not get the credit for the "fantastic work" that it does, citing the fact that many debates in the Commons are cut short, or "guillotined".

Many parts of bills do not get the level of scrutiny needed until they arrive in the Lords, he says.

"We're here to try and improve things if we can," he says.

The role of Lord Speaker differs to its Commons equivalent, because the Lords is self-regulating, so Lord Fowler has no say in who speaks in the chamber, or what amendments to legislation are selected for debate.

Holders of the post are elected for five years, and can choose to stand again, although the previous two Lord Speakers declined to serve a second term.

When Lord Fowler's term in office ends in 2021, what does he hope to have achieved?

"I don't think that I have a benchmark at the moment," he says.

"What I hope to do is to spread the word about the House of Lords, make it more accessible to the public and try to get more knowledge about it."

However, he declines to predict how many peers will be members of the Lords in five years' time.

"I'm not putting out targets of that kind, because I am the speaker and it's up to other people to make the case and in many cases to make the decisions."