Lords thrive in the largest deliberative temple, their numbers growing

It seems unlikely that the members of the House of Lords would refer to their assembly as the world’s greatest deliberative body, as United States senators do, or used to anyway. The British are more given to self-deprecation. But there is a superlative that does apply, one that Britain’s politicians have been trying to shed: the world’s largest legislative body outside China, and growing.

An explosion of numbers is causing alarm in the assembly’s richly decorated, red-carpeted corridors, occupied by members who these days are less likely to be aristocrats with country estates than political hacks or ex-ministers.

After the latest influx this summer, the House of Lords has 836 members, and although a few dozen stepped back from duties because of ill health or a clash of interests, 781 have the right to revise or delay legislation, question ministers and take part in debates.

That is not the only reason for concern, critics say. The Electoral Reform Society, which promotes representative democracy, says that the “supersized second chamber” may soon have 1,000 members and that even that number could double.

That compares with 650 elected parliamentary representatives in the adjacent House of Commons, which, in contrast to the Lords, has the final say on legislation.

The last effort to deal with the problem, which would have seen 80 per cent of peers elected and the numbers cut to 450, foundered in 2012. Now, all three parties, which were committed to change just a few years ago, seem to have abandoned all attempts and have begun once again to add new members.

Because the Lords can delay or amend legislation, if not start it, governments tend to add new members, or peers, to create a majority. The Prime Minister can alter the political balance by nominating more candidates than other party leaders. (Nominees go through an appointments panel before being appointed by the queen.)

But while there are 24 peers age 90 or older, and 137 aged 80 to 89, there are no rules about retirement, and even a prison sentence does not bring disqualification.

“If we get larger and larger, we look really stupid and the case for reform becomes greater and greater,” said George Foulkes, a peer and former minister from the opposition Labour Party who wants to restrict numbers to 450. “It is an issue of our credibility as a legislature.”

Other concerns, he said, include cramped office space, limited travel budgets for official trips, restricted speaking time and occasional difficulties cramming into a chamber built for 500.

“People complain that you can’t book a table in the restaurant,” said John Monks, a Labour peer from Manchester, referring to the Lords’ grand dining hall with waiter service. Mr. Monks, who was once the country’s top trade union boss, says he happily eats in the self-service cafeteria. It is little wonder people like it here. The House of Lords provides a public platform without the inconvenience of elections. The position is unsalaried, but peers can claim up to £300 a day, nearly $500, tax free for attending (while holding other jobs). They get a title, a desk in a historic palace, free parking in central London and access to the Bishops’ Bar, a members-only, wood-panelled establishment (23 bishops are members of the Lords, though they are rarely spotted at the rail).

Under Britain’s unwritten Constitution, the Lords can amend legislation and force the government to rethink an act, but has no veto power and will ultimately yield if the House of Commons insists. This system may lack some democracy, but it limits competition between the two chambers, preventing legislative deadlock.

By 1999, numbers had surged to 1,330 before being trimmed in an overhaul that also limited to 92 the number of hereditary peers who can pass their titles (but no longer the right to sit in Parliament) to their heirs.

Thomas Galbraith, a hereditary peer known as Lord Strathclyde, is a former Conservative Cabinet minister, a former leader of the Lords and an architect of the 1999 changes. His grandfather never expected the Lords to survive long enough for him to take his seat, he says, adding that it performs a useful job revising legislation and occasionally defeating the government.

Mr. Galbraith highlights the fact that the Lords ultimately must yield to the Commons whereas, in the United States, “some of the deadlock we have seen in recent times is not edifying either from an institutional point of view or from a legislative governmental point of view”.

“Over coffee in the elegant Lords Guest Room, overlooking the Thames, Mr. Monks, the Labour peer, said debate in the Lords is in fact of high quality, because speakers include experts and the assembly displays a streak of independence.

But he described his first impression, when he was shown his official coat peg at the entrance, as a “Hogwarts moment”, reminiscent of the Harry Potter series. “It’s the only place I come where I am younger than the average age,” added Mr. Monks (68). — New York Times News Service