The New Years Honours lists threatens, as usual, to be controversial. I always read the lists, because usually someone from the Social Policy community will have a gong dropped on them, and in most cases the award of titles offers everyone a source of innocent amusement. But there’s also a serious side, because for one group in particular – the House of Lords – a title is also an appointment to the legislature. Recent appointments have been open to three criticisms. There are too many Lords (822 at the last count); there’s a continuing political imbalance in the Lords; and there’s no effective way to get rid of them.
Most of the attempts to reform the Lords have foundered, and I doubt it’s worth aiming for root and branch reform. There are however some very simple, marginal changes that could transform the House.
First, distinguish the award of a peerage from the process of appointment to the Lords. As things stand we have people who could be distinguished legislators who won’t accept a peerage – not to mention a leading party that won’t nominate appointees. There are other peers who have no interest in taking part in the functions of the House. The separation of functions should not be problematic; we have already broken the link between titles and attendance by excluding most hereditary peers. All the honours system has to do is to attach an invitation to join the second house in cases where it is appropriate, and not to attach such an invitation automatically.
Second, offer appointment to the House of Lords for a fixed period of time – for example, seven years, renewable once. That removes the problem of organising retirement, and the invidious implication that age in itself should set the bar. If we begin now, after deaths and departures there would still be up to 600 of the existing 822 peers remaining after seven years (and probably less), but none after the end of the second term.
Third, cap the number of appointments that are possible. If we want eventually to have a revising chamber of 400, a fourteen-year limit implies a replenishment rate of about 30 new members a year, or 150 in a Parliamentary term. This would limit the excessive numbers over time. Because it would also depend on a regulated flow of new entries, it should be possible to address the problems of political balance as well as affording an opportunity to deal with the imblance of gender.
Fourth, bar all persons from participation in the House of Lords who have made any substantial political donation in the preceding five years. Places in the legislature should not be for sale.