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Sexism, seats, and the House of Lords

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House of Lords, reform, government response, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Burns Report, size of upper chamberIt seems that reforms to the House of Lords are unlikely to be implemented in this Parliament.

In November 2018 the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report with the title ‘A Smaller House of Lords’ in which it recommended that the government reduce and cap the number of Lords to 600 as a matter of urgency.

This was based on the recommendation made in the earlier Burns Report on the size of the upper chamber.

The Burns Report – or to give it its more official title ‘the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House of Lords’ – recommended changes such as capping the size of the House Lords at 600 members, introducing 15-year fixed terms for new peers, and a ‘two-out-one-in’ system, which would result in gradual reduction in the size of the House of Lords

But in its response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report, published on 5 March 2019, the government said that despite agreeing in principal to reducing the size of the Lords, it is not a priority in this Parliament.

This although in a letter to the Lord Speaker in February 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May seemed to appreciate her role in achieving this, saying that: ‘I intend to continue with the restraint I have exercised to date and, when making appointments, to allocate them fairly, bearing in mind the results of the last general elections’.

But three months later she backtracked and appointed 13 new peers to the House of Lords – an action largely unnoticed as we were at the time being swamped with Royal Wedding news.

So despite the Burns Report’s recommendations, it seems that, in reality, reform is moving in the opposite direction.

The Electoral Reform Society has calculated, for example, that, if the current rate of appointments continues, we are on track to having around 1,000 members in the Lords by 2031.

At some cost to the taxpayer.

The Committee has also published correspondence between the Chair, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, and the Minister for the Constitution, Chloe Smith MP, in which Sir Bernard requested further detail from the government on this matter, including asking the government to outline the criteria being used to ensure its commitment that appointments of the Lords are made “fairly”.

Jenkin’s letter stresses the committee’s view that the Burns Report proposals represent a “minimal incremental reform” of House of Lords and “remains a vital and pressing issue that needs to be addressed.”

The Committee has found it puzzling that the Minister’s response to this suggests that such reform is “radical” and “longer-term reform”.

Of the 761 peers, 206 are women; among these 761 are 26 Bishops (Lords Spiritual) – of whom 4 are women.

And women are – still – ineligible to succeed to the majority of hereditary peerages. Meaning that because 92 places are reserved for hereditary peers, 75 of whom were elected by their fellow hereditary Peers, there are seats in the House of Lords are effectively reserved for men.

In 2017 when there were 91 men and 1 woman most were over 70 years old, just 29 are aged under 50; and 44 per cent of peers lived in London or the South-East.

And in a by-election – another oddity in a largely appointed chamber – for a successor to Lord Lyell who had died in January 2017 – and held on International Women’s Day 8 March 2017 – all the candidates to replace Lord Lyell were men.

And while many are diligent in their contributions to the work of the House – and contribute as many hours as some of their appointed counterparts – from an equality perspective, this is even worse; for it is a place of real influence, from which women are effectively barred.

So as things stand, if a cap of 600 peers were achieved, almost 20 per cent of the Upper House would comprise of bishops and hereditary peers.

Such a House would still not be representative of either the population or the diversity of the modern United Kingdom.

So why does this carry on?

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