Lords Reform - Burns Report

This page first posted 9 November 2017

The House of Lords has recently published a report on reform of the House of Lords.

The House of Lords is not democratically elected, and its members are appointed directly or indirectly by Prime Ministers. It is one of the least legitimate legislative chambers in the developed world. Proper reform would make the House of Lords democratically elected.

But this report is not that sort of reform. This report works within the existing legislation of an appointed House of Lords. Nevertheless it is a good report as far as it goes within those constraints, and it is worthy of consideration.

Burns Report on the size of the Lords

The report's committee was led by Lord (Terence) Burns, formerly Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, and an economist by profession. The report embodies some of the better qualities of the civil service, by providing both clear analysis and workable proposals which provide evolutionary and incremental change to achieve reform. Care is taken not to frighten any horses.

The main thrust of the report can be summarised as follows

In terms of continuity and making evolutionary incremental progress, the report promises:

The main strength of the report is that it would, rather gently, convert party appointments to the House of Lords from being fairly arbitrary into a rolling proportional system. The composition of the House would be strongly linked to the performance of political parties at general elections.

The metric used has been carefully chosen to both appear simple and be relatively sophisticated in its behaviour. For each party, their share of new seats in the Lords is given by the formula:

Lords Seat Share = ( GE Vote Share + GE Seat Share ) / 2,

where the "GE" is the most recent general election for the House of Commons. This appears a simple formula, but it has a nice balance between responsiveness to general election majorities and not being a simple clone of the Commons. The fifteen-year terms of new members mean that the Lords' composition will be a rolling average of the last three (or so) parliaments.

The committee also took the time to "backtest" how the Lords would have looked if the new system had been in place since 1959. The bar chart below shows many seats each party would have had the proposed system been in place and stablised. There are 450 party-political seats, with another 150 for crossbenchers and Bishops.

Seats held in the Lords by party under Burns plan 1959-2017

It is clear that the party composition is responsive to changing public opinion, but with a lag. The Conservatives elected in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher would have to wait a year or so until there were more Conservative peers than Labour. And Tony Blair in 1997 would have to wait four years until there were more Labour peers than Conservatives. That Labour legacy continued so that the Conservatives would still be outnumbered by Labour all through David Cameron's premiership and Theresa May's up to 2017.

Positive and Negative Features of the Report

The report has a number of good features which would lead to a better House of Lords, albeit with limitations. These are:

These are good things, which would lead to a House of Lords better than it is now. It would not be perfect, but it would be less bad.

Intriguingly, there are also some more or less subtle hints of things could be done if there were legislation. Just as Mark Anthony can repeat "Brutus is an honourable man", but suggest something different, so in this report. Phrases such as "for as long as the House remains an appointed chamber" are suggestive of progress beyond that state. The clause "in the absence of legislation, the number of Bishops would be unaffected" can be read either as a neutral statement of fact or as a subtle spur to legislate. Although the text does not say so explicitly, an attentive reader can infer some broad directions for larger-scale reform.

Lord Burns and his committee cannot say these things directly, and would make no progress if they tried. But the Kremlinology of their smoke signals does give some directions for the future.

But there are also some drawbacks to the report. These are:

The first two of these are particularly troubling, because they would give more control over the legislature by the executive, rather than less. The long implmentation time may also not appear reasonable to the general public.

Full reform of the House of Lords

Useful as it is, the Burns report is not full-scale reform of the House of Lords. The fact that the House of Lords is appointed (or hereditary) is a dark stain on the British constitution. Westminster, the mother of parliaments, has an undemocratic canker at its heart. Compared with other democratic countries, Britain is a cautionary tale rather than a shining exemplar.

CountrySecond ChamberSizeSelection process
BritainHouse of Lords800Appointed by the Prime Minister, plus 90 hereditaries
FranceSenate348Elected by 150,000 local councilors and other officials
GermanyBundesrat69Delegates of each elected state government
ItalySenate320Elected by popular vote, plus 5 appointed
JapanHouse of Councillors242Fully elected by popular vote
USASenate100Fully elected by popular vote

The House of Lords is, by a large margin, the largest of these chambers. It is, also by a large margin, the least democratic. France and Germany have indirectly elected chambers, and the the US, Japan and Italy have directly elected members.

The House of Lords is not democratically selected and makes Britain look bad internationally. Reform was originally mooted in 1911, but has made no progress. Groups like the Electoral Reform Society have put the case for elections in the public domain. Who or what is blocking reform?

Westminster does not want reform

Reformers need to be clear-eyed about the forces opposed to change. Almost everyone at Westminster has a strong vested interest in not having reform of the Lords. This runs from every Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, through most MPs and members of the Lords. Their motivations are laid out here

Political rolePersonal advantages of the current system
Prime MinisterPatronage and parliamentary management
Leader of OppositionPatronage, plus looking forward to being PM
Govt WhipsParliamentary management — easier to get business through weak second chamber
MPsIncreased personal power relative to members of weak second chamber; attractive retirement option
Life PeersRemain members of House of Lords without need for election
Remain members of House of Lords

Remember that it needs new legislation to elect the House of Lords. And legislation needs the support of the Prime Minister, the whips, MPs and members of the Lords. The opposition of any one of these groups can kill a bill, and this reform is opposed by all four of them. So Westminster, left to itself, will not make the House of Lords democratic.

But the British people want change

There are 1,450 members of the Commons and the Lords who (mostly) do not want reform. But there are 46,847,015 British voters who (mostly) do want reform.

Polling about House of Lords reform happens infrequently, but it provides a very consistent view from the British people. Here are three relevant polls from the last few years. Respondents were usually asked whether they wanted the House of Lords to be appointed, partially elected, fully elected or abolished. Percentages are given as a fraction of those with a definite opinion, excluding "don't knows".

Pollster / ClientSurvey datesSample sizeAppointedPartially Elected Fully ElectedAbolition
Survation / Daily Mirror17 Dec 20131,00511%76%n/a
BMG / Electoral Reform Soc22 Oct 2015 – 27 Oct 20151,50413%24%36%28%
BMG / Electoral Reform Soc17 Oct 2017 – 20 Oct 20171,14810%27%37%27%

The two more recent polls from BMG are shown in the pie-chart below with the recent poll as the outer ring, and the 2015 poll as the inner ring.

Polls on House of Lords Reform 2015-2017

It is very clear that there is a large majority of the public which wants elections to the House of Lords. Only a very small minority want to maintain the current appointed House.

The forward path

The natural proposition is that the House of Lords should change and be democratically elected.

There is a large majority in Westminster against that change. So we can deduce then that change will not come from Westminster, and a legislative solution is unlikely.

But there is a large majority for the change amongst the public. The question becomes how can the public's view prevail over their unrepresentative representatives. The obvious answer to this question is to hold a referendum. This is the main democratic instrument for asserting the public's view over parliament. Given the polling evidence, it should be much more clear-cut than the EU Referendum and less divisive. And easier to implement the decision.

For Britian to be properly democratic we need a referendum on electing the House of Lords.


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