There is much rumbling amongst their Lordships at the imminent threat of the Prime Minister to appoint more Peers, to achieve a better balance of party representation. He can legitimately claim that he is only reflecting the votes at the last General Election. Labour can hardly complain because – not only did they get the lion’s share of the immediate post-election intake in 2010 (29 compared with 15 Conservatives and 9 Liberal Democrats) – but Tony Blair and Gordon Brown between them nominated 173 Labour allies over their 13 years in office.
However, the anxiety is shared across the House. There is an element of the old medieval instinct: pull up the drawbridge now WE are safely inside. But this concern is principally stimulated by the increasing proportion of Members who are sufficiently active to attend the Chamber regularly and require some office facilities. While the total number currently entitled to sit in the Lords 760 (excluding 39 who have taken leave of absence), the older appointees tend to be less diligent than the new arrivals. As more Peers have been appointed in the last two years, the average attendance has increased by nearly 25%.
So what’s to be done to slim the place down? Lord Dubs had an ingenious idea earlier in the month: “Why not suggest that, if anybody wishes to stay in this House, they drop their title but, if they leave the House, they can retain it?”. I wish it were that easy. I added my own thoughts: “banishing those who do not attend would be pointless and equally persuading non-attenders to come more regularly would be counterproductive”
This is a real conundrum. Some have suggested introducing a retirement age but I cannot see that blatant, compulsory age discrimination of this kind would prove acceptable. Some of the 80-year-olds here make a much better, more informed contribution than do their younger colleagues. Various plans to pay Peers to retire are equally doomed to unpopular derision. For one thing if more peers from a given party retired than from another, the resulting imbalance would simply provoke more appointments.
Until our fellow citizens get to decide through the ballot box who stays and who goes, I think another suggestion, which I found in a note from the Clerks about the past practices of the Lords, may have some merit. I put it to the Leader of the House recently at Questions: “Has my noble friend seen the excellent note from the Clerks on this issue which records the fact that in 1820 the House ordered that Peers be fined up to £100 for each day’s absence? At today’s money, would not that help deal with the deficit?” Faced with such fines, suitably adjusted to 21st Century monetary value, we would soon weed out those who should have taken leave of absence long ago!