The claim
“These appointments would create an even bigger majority for the Coalition in the Lords and risk reducing its role to a mere rubber stamp for the House of Commons.”
Ed Miliband MP, in a letter to David Cameron, November 19, 2010

Cathy Newman checks it out

The House of Lords has become “bloated and dysfunctional”, a report out today warns. And no, that’s not a consequence of their Lordships’ dining habits.

What the report from the Constitution Unit at University College London is concerned about is the huge number of Peers appointed by David Cameron since he took office a year ago. Ed Miliband issued a similar alert a few months ago.

But is the Prime Minister doing anything other than adjusting the political balance in the Lords to reflect the will of the people at the last election?

The Analysis

David Cameron was told today to “get a grip” on the ballooning number of Peers in the House of Lords.

Since the General Election the PM has created 117 new peers, according to a report from the Constitution Unit.

This leaves the House packed to the rafters and prompts “a major concern that if appointments continue, the House of Lords will simply cease to be able to function”.

Certainly, the vast House of Lords, with its 792 members, eclipses the size of the Commons. And since Peers don’t leave the chamber – other than through death – the only way to achieve greater proportionality is through new appointments.

An angry Ed Miliband accused Mr Cameron back in November of filling the Lords with Tory donors – and claimed the move was undemocratic. At the time Mr Cameron created 54 new Peerages; 29 Tories, 15 Lib Dems and 10 Labour.

Now that total has more than doubled. But has Mr Cameron packed the House with Coalition cronies?

Historically, Tony Blair’s rate of appointment was high – Margaret Thatcher created an average 18 Peers a year, while under Mr Blair the average was 37. But David Cameron has managed – in less than a year – to appoint one-third of the total number Tony Blair managed in his 11 years as Prime Minister.  

Downing Street is unapologetic, saying: “The Government will be bringing forward a draft Bill before the end of May proposing a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords.

“The Programme for Government states ‘In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last General Election’.

“The current system of appointing peers will therefore remain until the Government’s reforms are in place.”

But does the Lords reflect “the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election”?

Mr Cameron’s appointments haven’t helped the Lords’ proportionality. He has actually appointed 39 Labour Peers – honouring Gordon Brown’s outgoing list of 32 – and only 47 Conservatives.

“David Cameron could in theory have refused such a large list, and arguably should have done, but he may have felt duty bound to respect the outgoing Prime Minister’s wishes,” the Constitution Unit said.

Plus, the Coalition government has been defeated 14 times in the House of Lords so far (see: full list of government defeats since the 1970s).

Labour was already over-represented compared to vote shares and it remains the largest party in the Lords with 243 Peers (16 per cent of whom have been created by Mr Cameron).

Meanwhile, the PM has topped up the Tories’ number by 22 per cent to 218 and the Lib Dems by 26 per cent to 93 Peers.

Latest figures show that – compared to Labour’s 243 Peers there are a total of 311 who represent the Coalition partners. But added together this only accounts for 554 of the total 792 Peers, the rest are a mix of Crossbenchers, Bishops and others.

As Mr Miliband rues, this gives the Coalition the majority (discounting the cross-benchers), but it does not represent the Coalition’s share of the General Election vote.

In fact, Labour’s 31 per cent share of the House of Lords is largely in line with their 29 per cent share of general election votes. The Crossbenchers and others are also overrepresented with 30 per cent of the House – yet other parties at the General Election received only 19 per cent of votes.

By contrast, the Coalition is hugely under-represented – with 40 per cent of the House and 59 per cent of General Election votes.

But to balance it out, the Constitution Unit shows that Mr Cameron would need to appoint 269 new Peers, which it says would be “disastrous”, taking the total membership of the House to more than 1,000 – crippling its ability to function normally and rendering the Coalition’s pledge “unrealistic”. (see: full list of House of Lords Peers)

Cathy Newman’s verdict

Yes those Peers are beginning to look uncomfortably like sardines in ermine. But Ed Miliband’s wrong to argue that’s giving the Tories a political advantage.

The Lords still doesn’t reflect the Coalition parties’ standing at the last General Election.

David Cameron’s scramble to put that right does, however, undermine his commitment to a new politics, and makes the case for wholesale reform of the Lords – and the sooner the better.

The Analysis by Emma Thelwell