On 16 September 2020, Lord Grocott (Labour) has tabled an oral question asking what assessment the Government has made of the case for an upper limit on the number of members of the House of Lords. 

Why is a cap on the Lords membership sometimes suggested? 

There is currently no limit on the size of the House of Lords membership. The idea of a cap on the size of the membership is often raised as a way of addressing concerns about the size of the House.   

As of 8 September 2020, the total membership of the House was 800. There were also still due to be 26 peers joining the membership over future months following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent peerage announcements. This could lead to the total membership of the House reaching 826. 

In October 2017, the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House of Lords proposed a cap of 600 members as part of its recommendations for addressing concerns about the size of the House. It stressed the importance of introducing the cap alongside other measures to reduce the membership as this would ensure that any reduction was not temporary: 

It would be pointless to make a one-off reduction in the numbers only for the historic growth in the membership immediately to resume. Indeed, without the certainty of a fixed cap and an accepted and fair system of appointments for the future, existing members may understandably be reluctant to take the steps needed if the size of the House is to be reduced in the first place. 

Regarding the size of the cap, the committee explained that it was recommending a membership of 600 based on the “weight of opinion” of those it had consulted, to keep the House below the size of the House of Commons and to allow enough members to participate whilst also maintaining their outside interests and expertise: 

There is no scientific way of calculating the ideal level of a cap. In line with the weight of opinion among consultees and others, we propose a cap of 600. The figure could be higher, but it seemed to us that the momentum in the House behind this initiative required a reduction in the membership of at least that magnitude, and that there was a widespread feeling that the Lords should be no larger than the Commons. Equally the cap could be lower, but perhaps not much lower if the House is to maintain its current activity levels. Continuing to allow members to undertake careers and activities outside politics is necessary if they are to maintain and update their expertise and apply it to their parliamentary work—a key strength of the House.  

How could a cap be implemented?

The Lord Speaker’s committee stated that its proposals, including a membership cap, could be introduced without legislation. It called on the groups in the House to work together to reduce the membership, suggesting this would be an easier path than proposing legislation: 

Recognising the difficulties normally faced by bills relating to the House of Lords, we are proposing a system which can be implemented without legislation. This will require a working agreement between the parties and a willingness by existing members voluntarily to take the steps needed to achieve the target reduction in the size of the House. 

It put forward some recommendations on how the reduced numbers could be achievedThese included: 

  • the adoption of a “two-out, one-in” principle until the House’s membership fell below the cap, and then operating a “one-out, one-in” system thereafter; 
  • appointments distributed between the political groups based on recent election results; and 
  • new appointments being offered on a fixedterm basis of 15 years.  

At the time of the report, the total membership of the House was 824. The committee hoped the membership could be reduced below the cap in 11 years if the House followed its recommendations.  

There have been a number of other previous proposals to cap the House membership. For example, the Coalition Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill 2012–13 proposed a cap of just over 450 members and would have managed this via legislation. However, the bill was dropped after its second reading in the House of Commons. 

Meg Russell, professor of British and comparative politics and director of the Constitution Unit, addressed the pros and cons of a legislative or non-legislative cap in an article in 2016. Setting out her own proposals for reducing the size of the House, including a permanent size cap and measures to reduce the size of the House below that, she explained: 

The Lords can use a resolution to agree the principle that it should be no larger than the Commons, and that this limit should apply from 2020 onwards. This would be non-binding, but if the Prime Minister concedes the point it could be enough to create a strong convention.

Nonetheless legislation to underpin the change might be a sensible guarantee. Likewise, a declaration by the Prime Minister that future appointments will follow a proportionality formula would be difficult for her successors to renege upon, but would be future-proofed if underpinned in statute. Legislation on Lords reform has historically been difficult to achieve (as shown very clearly in 1969, post-1999 and in 2012), but the changes discussed here are very small and few could argue with their merits. A declaration of support for these principles by both parliament and government is the key first step. Reinforcement by a short government bill, or a private member’s bill with government support, might then usefully follow. 

Is there support within Parliament? 

The House of Lords debated the Lord Speaker’s committee report on 19 December 2017, with the majority of members supporting its recommendations, including a membership cap of 600. However, a small number questioned the report’s proposals, believing they might make the House more like the House of Commons and that a cap would negatively impact prime ministerial patronage.  

In addition, some expressed concerns about the committee’s suggestion that its recommendations could be implemented without legislation. For example, Lord Tyler, the Liberal Democrats spokesperson for constitutional and political reform, stated that this allowed future prime ministers to ignore any agreement reached on the size of the House and that it also meant the proposals did not go through the usual constitutional process. This, he said, meant that MPs and their constituents would not get a formal say on a major constitutional change.  

The chair of the Lord Speaker’s committee, Lord Burns (Crossbench)explained that it was not a decision the committee had taken lightly, but believed it was the most efficient way forward: 

The question I asked myself and members of the committee asked themselves was whether we should wait to make any progress on these other issues until we had a slot for legislation, or should try to put together a system that could be worked on a non-legislative basis, but which legislation could be brought to bear on at a later point.  

The committee’s proposal for a cap was also supported by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs CommitteeIt recognised that introducing a cap would ensure any reduction in membership was not temporary. However, it also believed the House should attempt to reduce its membership below the cap quicker than had been suggested by the Lord Speaker’s committee. 

What is the Government’s position?

Speaking in an oral question on 5 May 2020, Lord True, minister of state at the Cabinet Office, stated that the Government did not intend to cap the size of the House of Lords: 

The Government do not currently intend to put a cap on the size of the House; indeed, their position is that from time to time the House will need refreshing. That has always been the position; it has never been a static House. 

However, the Government has indicated its support for a reduction in the size of the House. For example, speaking shortly after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent peerages announcement, a government spokesperson stated that it still wanted the size of the House to be reduced.  

In 2018, then Prime Minister Theresa May responded to the Lord Speaker’s committee report saying she would continue to exercise “restraint” regarding new appointments to the House. She also hoped the House would play its part by encouraging members to retire. Taken together, she saw this as the most effective approach to immediately addressing concerns about the size of the House. If this was successful, Theresa May also stated that additional measures might then be agreed by all parties in the future: 

After a period of evaluating the success or otherwise of this first, important step, I would hope that consideration could then be given by all parties as to whether it should be formalised and whether any of the additional mechanisms recommended in the Burns report would be necessary.

However, there was no Government commitment made to capping the size of the House. Noting this in its 2018 follow-up report, the Lord Speaker’s committee stated: 

The Prime Minister has not yet addressed the question of what size the House should be and whether it should be capped at that number. Neither has she yet accepted the principle of fixed terms. Without these elements of the committee’s scheme, it is difficult to envisage how the size of the House can achieve the steady state which is necessary to provide stability and give confidence to members and the wider public.  

The committee published a second follow-up report in July 2019. Although it was pleased with the progress being made to reduce the size of the House, it again stressed the importance of clear support from the prime minister: 

We hope that the new prime minister will take the same constructive approach to our work as his predecessor did, recognising the expressed determination of members on all sides of the House to make progress towards a membership capped at 600. We will continue to promote this key aim at every opportunity, whilst also ensuring that the new prime minister does not lose sight of our more far-reaching proposals for fixed terms. 

At the time of the second followup report’s publication, the House had reduced to 778 members. 

How has the size of the membership changed over recent years?

Since 2000, the total size of the House membership has increased from around 700 members to around 800. The graph in figure 1 below shows the total membership at the end of each session since 2000: 

Figure 1: Total membership at end of each session: 1999–2000 to 2017–19

Graph showing a general increase in the total membership of the House of Lords over the last 20 years.

The lowest figure recorded across this period was 679 in 2001 and the highest was 845 in 2016. 

The table in figure 2 shows the number of members (excluding bishops) joining and leaving the House in the last five years. For those leaving, the table also shows the number that voluntarily retired in brackets. The figures for 2020 include all those expected to join the House following Boris Johnson’s announcement of new life peers.   

Figure 2: Members joining and leaving each year since 2016

Year  Joined  Left (of which, retired)  Balance 
2016  18  35 (18)  -17 
2017  11  32 (21)  -21 
2018  19  29 (13)  -10 
2019  22  25 (14)  -3 
2020 (as at 8 September)  39  25 (17)  +14 

It shows that, thus far, 2020 is the only year across the period 
where more members have joined the House than those that left. 

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Photo by Roger Harris Copyright House of Lords 2019.