UK Politics

House of Lords: Does size matter?

House of Lords benches Image copyright PA

David Cameron has created 45 new peers. The choice of new members has once again turned the spotlight on the workings of the House of Lords - and its size.

How large is the House of Lords?

The new peers will take the total number of eligible members of the Upper House to 826.

Of these, the majority are known as life peers, 92 are hereditaries and 26 are Church of England bishops. A further 32 are on "leave of absence" for various reasons while eight are disqualified because they are members of the Supreme Court.

Does size matter?

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Image caption The United States Senate has 100 representatives

Increasingly, yes. Critics argue the House of Lords is the second largest legislature after the Chinese National People's Congress and dwarfs Upper Houses in other bi-cameral democracies such as the United States (100 senators), France (348 senators), Australia (76 senators) and India (250 members). The Lords is also larger than the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea (687 members).

More importantly, however, it is considerably larger than its sister Chamber. The House of Commons, colloquially known as the "other place", has 650 MPs.

Peers grumble that there is not enough room to accommodate all of their colleagues in the Chamber, where there are only about 400 seats, and say they are constantly jostling for space - particularly during high-profile sittings.

On the other hand, defenders of the Lords say that it does a vital job scrutinising legislation, a lot of which has come its way from the Commons in recent years.

If it is so big, why does it need new members?

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Image caption The prime minister has said the Lords should better reflect the political make-up of the Commons

The prime minister is able to create new "working peers" to represent his party at any time but one of the largest cohorts traditionally comes after each general election, in what is known as the Dissolution Honours List.

The list is traditionally announced weeks after the election, although Mr Cameron has waited longer than usual to do so this time.

The list, bestowed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister, broadly reflects the political make-up of the Commons before each election so, in 2010, Labour accounted for the majority of the 55 new peers created. This time around, the Conservatives will have the most.

Facts about the Lords

Image caption Attendance levels have improved in the past 40 years
  • There are 617 male peers and 209 female peers
  • The coalition government suffered 99 defeats in the Lords between 2010 and 2015
  • The Labour government suffered 88 defeats alone in one year, between 2002 and 2003
  • Hereditary peers are elected when one of their number dies or retires. There have been 23 elections since 2003
  • The longest serving member is Lord Carrington, who took his seat in 1945
  • The average age of members is 70
  • There are more than 190 former MPs in the Lords
  • 621 members took part in a vote on the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, the largest division to date

Former MPs are among those ennobled in the Dissolution List. David Blunkett, Alistair Darling, Sir Menzies Campbell and Douglas Hogg are all newly-created peers.

Peers say the Upper House needs new blood on a regular basis to keep it fresh and vigorous and to help correct the current massive gender imbalance.

Although new peerages are vetted by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, constitutional reformers say it is essentially a system of patronage - in which loyal former MPs and ministers tend to be rewarded - which is long overdue for change.

Who controls the Lords?

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Image caption Crossbenchers wield a lot of power in the House of Lords

Given that many of those ennobled in it are party politicians, the Dissolution List reopens the thorny issue of who controls the Upper Chamber.

Critics say Mr Cameron has already created a lot of peers but he, like all prime ministers before him, has justified this as a way of ensuring the Lords more closely reflects the political make-up of the Commons and therefore the popular will expressed in general elections.

Mathematically speaking, there is a clear imbalance at the moment. In the Commons, the Conservatives have 331 of 650 seats and a 12-seat majority. But in the Lords, only 252 of the 826 members take the Conservative whip.

Without a majority, this means that the government can be regularly defeated.

The government is at even more of a disadvantage than its predecessor since the coalition could call on the support of both Tory and Lib Dem peers, who accounted for about 40% of the membership of the House.

At the moment, it is almost impossible for the Tories to get a measure through if Labour and the Lib Dems decide to join forces - as is predicted to happen a lot over the next five years - and win over many of the 179 influential crossbenchers to their cause.

Constitutional experts say it was ever thus - the Labour government was defeated 88 times in 2002-3 - and it would be unhealthy, and potentially dangerous, for a single party to have a majority in the Upper House if it is to properly fulfil its role of being a revising Chamber and help to hold the executive to account.

Could it be 1,000 and counting?

Advocates of reform warn that if 40 new peers are created every year during this Parliament, the Lords could have 1,000 members by 2020.

But its defenders say such numbers are extremely unlikely, given the new mechanisms in place - since 2014 - allowing peers to retire when they no longer feel able to contribute. Before that, peers only ceased to be members when they died.

In the past year, the number of new peers created has been exceeded by the number who have either died or retired.

What do peers earn?

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Image caption Lord Hanningfield was suspended for a year amid a row over "clocking" into Parliament

Peers who are not ministers are not paid a salary but can claim up to £300 a day for attending Parliament.

They can chose to claim a lower rate of £150 for work away from Westminster or official visits.

There have been claims that peers are abusing the rules by "clocking in" to claim the money without doing the work expected of them in return. One peer was suspended for this in 2014 but defenders of the Lords point to the fact that attendance levels have risen markedly in recent years.

The average attendance last year - when the Lords sat for 126 days - was 483, compared with 403 in 2005-6 and 372 in 1995-6.

According to the latest House of Lords Annual Report, net operating costs for the chamber totalled £94.4m for 2014/15. Of this, £20.7m was spent on members' allowances and expenses.

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