Proposal for a Consensus Approach to House of Lords Reform: Background Paper

The following background paper, by Liberal Democrat and former County Councillor Dr Alex Reid, sets out in more detail the background to the Proposal for a Consensus Approach to the House of Lords.


1. The key features of the proposal, referred to below as the Evolution Option, are:

a. Indirect Elections. The 80% elected element of the House would be indirectly elected via parties, instead of being directly elected. Although this may seem a minor change, it is crucially important because it avoids the threat which direct elections would present to the delicate balance of power between Lords and Commons.

b. Part-time Peers. All Peers would continue, as at present, to be part-time and unsalaried, receiving only a per diem allowance. This is in contrast to the Draft Billís proposal for Peers to become full-time, with salaries and pensions. The benefit of maintaining part-time working is that the House would continue to attract eminent independently-minded people who wish to retain an involvement in activities outside politics.

c. Size of House. A House of 450, as recommended by the Joint Committee on Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, in contrast to the Draft Bill proposal of 300 full-time Peers. This would be a broadly equivalent resource.

2. Otherwise, the Evolution Option leaves the principles of Draft Bill unchanged. It accepts that a minority of Peers would be Crossbenchers and that a majority of Peers would be elected (although under the Evolution Option they would be indirectly rather than directly elected). Also it proposes no changes to the following key features of the Draft Bill: that all Peers, including Crossbenchers, would serve single 15-year terms staggered so that one third retire every five years; that the Hereditary Peers would be phased out; that 12 Bishops would be retained; that the House of Lords Appointments Commission would be put onto a statutory basis; that a disqualification procedure would be introduced; that the Prime Minister would be able to appoint some Ministerial Peers for the duration of their ministerial tenure; and that the transition would be achieved in three stages between 2015 and 2025. Of the three transition options in the White Paper, Option 1 seems the preferable on the grounds that it provides a smooth transition without increasing the size of the House.


3. This paper is based on an assessment of the 603 pages of written evidence, and the oral evidence, which has been submitted to the Joint Committee on Draft House of Lords Reform Bill.

4. The evidence submitted to the Joint Committee shows almost unanimous agreement on three points:

a. The House of Lords is doing a useful job well, scrutinising and revising draft legislation, and occasionally delaying legislation to give Government the opportunity to think again.

b. The current balance of power between Commons and Lords is about right.

c. The composition of the House of Lords suffers from some defects, which should be rectified. It has become too large (809); the hereditary Peers should be phased out; and there should (as in Lord Steelís Bill) be arrangements for voluntary retirement, suspension and expulsion of Peers.

5. However, there are two matters on which the evidence shows strong and widespread objection to the Governmentís proposals:

a. The move from an appointed House of Lords to one which is largely or wholly directly elected is seen as presenting two serious risks:

- Upsetting the balance of power between Commons and Lords. The present balance of power between Commons and Lords, which is widely regarded as satisfactory, rests on conventions not codified in law and on the self-restraint of an unelected House of Lords. A directly elected House, whatever voting system is used, would be likely to become much more assertive. This could lead to conflict rather than complementarity between the two Houses, and to undesirable gridlock as sometimes occurs in the USA. An attempt to prevent this by codifying the conventions into law would have the disadvantage of rigidity; it would also risk drawing the courts into disputes between the two Houses.

- Loss of expertise and independence. A largely or wholly directly elected House of Lords would be likely to be dominated (as is the Commons) by career politicians who had worked their way up through political parties. There would be fewer eminent, independently minded people with substantial experience of the world outside politics. This would be a serious loss.

b. The move from members being part-time and unpaid (receiving only a per diem allowance) to being full-time parliamentarians with salaries and pensions is seen as having two serious disadvantages:

- Aggravating the loss of expertise and independence. The move would reduce the appeal of the House of Lords to those who wish to retain an active role in the world outside politics.

- Cost. The costs of running the House would increase by several million pounds per annum.

6. The three crucial amendments proposed by the Evolution Option in para 1 above are intended to overcome all these objections, while retaining the Draft Billís key aim of increasing the democratic legitimacy of the House of Lords. It should be noted that while the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties all called in their 2010 manifestos for a largely or wholly elected House of Lords, they did not specify whether the elections should be direct or indirect.


7. The proposed mechanism for indirect elections introduces democracy into the present system of party appointments in two ways:

a. Proportional allocation of seats to parties. Under the Evolution Option, vacancies for party-appointed Peers would be allocated to parties every five years in such a way that each partyís overall number of party-appointed Peers (including existing and newly appointed members) would be strictly proportional to the votes cast for that party at the previous General Election. The way in which this would be done is explained in a note at the end of this paper. No existing Peer would be required to stand down before the expiry of their 15 year term.

It is a feature of the Evolution Option that no party would, in practice, secure an overall majority of seats in the House of Lords. To do so would require a 63% share of vote in a General Election. In no General Election during the last fifty years has a party secured more than a 45% share of vote, a share which would not give them an overall majority even among the party-appointed Peers. Even the present coalition, with a combined 59.1% share of vote, falls short of 63%.

b. Opportunity for democratic election of party appointees. Each party would publish an ordered national list of its candidates prior to the general election. Those parties that wish to do so could introduce a further element of democracy by selecting their candidates through an internal party election, for example one in which all party members can stand and vote.

8. This mechanism of indirect elections would introduce a high degree of democratic legitimacy both in the allocation of seats, and in the filling of them. But because it involves no direct elections, and no geographical constituencies, it would not threaten the current delicate balance of power between Lords and Commons. Also it would enable the House of Lords to continue to attract a wide range of candidates including those who would not wish to take part in adversarial election contests between candidates from rival political parties.

Technical note on proportionality

It is important to make clear that under the Evolution Option it is not each quinquennial batch of vacant seats that is allocated to parties pro rata to share of vote. That approach, which has been suggested by some, would not produce proportionality overall. Indeed it could easily result in a party which had just won a General Election ending up (potentially for many years) with fewer seats in the Lords than the party that had just lost.

Under the Evolution Option each quinquennial batch of vacant seats would be allocated to parties in such a way as to produce proportionality overall. This allocation would take place every five years, shortly after a General Election.

The process is very simple, as shown in the hypothetical worked example below. It assumes a total House of 450 of whom 360 would be party-affiliated and 90 would be Crossbenchers. Suppose hypothetically that at the 2025 General Election the shares of vote are the same as they were in 2010. And suppose that at the 2030 General Election the Conservative and Labour shares of vote are reversed, with the other shares of vote remaining the same.


Share of vote in 2025 Gen Election

Seats after 2025 Gen Election

Share of vote in 2030 Gen Election if Con & Lab reversed

Continuing members (two thirds)

Total entitlement to seats after 2030 Gen Election

Allocation of vacancies after 2030 Gen Election to achieve this















Lib Dem






















This worked example shows how two thirds of each partyís seats would be carried over, with one third retiring and creating vacancies. Provided that no party lost more than one third of its share of vote between General Elections (which has not happened for more than 50 years), exact proportionality would be maintained. In the unlikely event that a party did lose more than a third of its share of vote between General Elections, a highly proportional result would still be achieved, with exact proportionality likely five years later. No Peer would be required to stand down before the expiry of their 15-year term.

Two subordinate matters that would need to be decided are:

a. Thresholds. The Evolution Option does not propose any requirement for a party to have a minimum share of vote, beyond the 0.4% needed to secure one seat. Some systems have higher thresholds, presumably to exclude extremist or eccentric minority parties. However, it seems difficult to justify this sort of discrimination against legal parties, however small.

b. By-elections. A mechanism would need to be put in place to deal with vacancies arising by death or resignation between the quinquennial batches of appointments. Such vacancies could be left to stand vacant until the next quinquennial batch. Alternatively they could be filled in the case of party-appointed Peers by the runners up in the last internal party election, and in the case of crossbenchers by replacement appointments. The latter approach, under which vacancies would be filled as they arise, has the advantages of maintaining proportionality and maintaining the size of the House. 


The Lordsreform.org website aims to inform public debate on changes proposed to the House of Lords in the 2011 White Paper. To focus discussion, it proposes some key changes to the Draft Bill regarding part-time Peers, size of House, and indirect elections. The website is edited by Dr Alex Reid.


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