Stealth Reform in the House of Lords

This post was contributed by Colin Munro, tutor in Public Law.

A report published in July revealed that, slowly but steadily, the second chamber has been shrinking. From a House of Lords membership of 823 on the day of the last general election in June 2017, the number had fallen to 778 two years later. A stealth reform is occurring, and critics who have ridiculed the House as being grossly unwieldy may have to recalibrate or modify their criticisms.

The reduction in size has been achieved because the main party leaders have informally agreed to make nominations for life peerages on a “two-out, one-in” basis, as proposed by the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, which (under the chairmanship of Lord Burns) first reported in 2017. The Committee (whose Third Report was the one published in July) commended the outgoing Prime Minister, Mrs May, for her restraint in observing the principle. With fingers crossed, they said that they “hope” that her successor will continue to follow it.

Size matters in perceptions of the House of Lords, but size isn’t everything. A more fundamental objection for many is its lack of democratic legitimacy. In a partial reform, the House of Lords Act 1999 resulted in the decimation, but not the elimination, of the body of hereditary peers. A

rump remains, along with smaller groups of Church of England prelates and retired judges, and what became the largest element, the life peers, most of whom owe their appointment to the patronage of political party leaders. None of these is elected to represent the public.

The Labour governments of 1997-2010 did not manage to complete their intended reform, and Mr Clegg’s attempt in the period of coalition government was abandoned in 2012. Why, if the current composition is difficult to defend, has radical reform been so difficult to achieve?


Do you want to find out more about the House of Lords and its functions, and discuss how it might be reformed?

For students on the University of London Undergraduate Laws programmes, we are running a London Study Support Event for Public Law in November. During this course my colleague and I will be covering this topic and other important topics found in the first half of the module guide. Full details on the VLE

I have many years’ experience of writing about and teaching public law, as a Professor of Law at the Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh. I have taught University of London students for more than 20 years, including classes at the University of Hong Kong and the Institute of Law in Jersey, and also offer private tuition. In teaching at University of London events, I aim to show the techniques and approaches that promote success in exams.  

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