31 Lords a-leaping: what will the changing make-up of the House of Lords mean for campaigners?

The House of Lords has been in the news this week, with Lord Sewel’s fall from grace leading to calls for reform of the second chamber by campaigners and politicians, and more speculation about the forthcoming Dissolution Honours List.

It’s also highlighted one of the less well known constitutional reforms of the last Parliament – that peers can now formally retire from the House of Lords, with Lord Sewel the 31st to take this option.

With the Government likely to find the Lords a tough proposition in the next few years, it’s worth looking at how this might change the Lords and the implications for charities.

Why does the Lords matter?

For much of its history the House of Lords has been dominated by the Conservative Party. This was particularly true in the heyday of the backwoodsmen, before the House of Lords Act 1999, which restricted the number of hereditary peers to 92.

However, that Act and 13 years of Labour in government, has meant that this is now much less clear-cut. The House of Lords currently has 782 peers made up of:

  • 226 Conservatives, making them the largest single party
  • 212 Labour peers
  • 179 Crossbenchers
  • 101 Lib Dems
  • around 50 assorted bishops, peers from smaller parties and non-affiliated (normally those who have official positions requiring neutrality, or peers who have resigned from their party).

In practice that means more often than not when Labour and the Lib Dems vote together in the Lords they will be able to defeat the Government.

According to UCL’s records, even with Liberal Democrats on board, the Government lost 100 votes over the course of the last Parliament, and 10 defeats have already been inflicted on the new government since May. Tellingly, every single one of those 10 defeats saw Labour and the Lib Dems vote together.

Who’s retiring and why?

The House of Lords Reform Act 2014 for the first time introduced a mechanism for peers to permanently retire from the House of Lords. Previously peers were able to use informal mechanisms, such as a leave of absence to declare they weren’t sitting, but only formally vacated the House on their death.

So who are the 31 who have chosen this route and what might their absence mean for the future of the Lords?

  • 11 (nearly a third) are Crossbenchers
  • 9 Conservatives
  • 5 Labour
  • 5 Lib Dems
  • Lord Sewel, the one non-affiliated peer to hand in their notice

More worryingly for the Conservatives in terms of their Lords numbers, only one of the retiring Labour peers was still regularly voting at the time of their retirement, compared to 5 of the Conservative peers.

One of those Conservatives, Lord Jenkin of Roding, who outlined his reasons for stepping down (and encouraged some of his colleagues to follow suit) did so in early 2015 having voted over 70 times in 2014. 7 of the peers were hereditary, and so have been or will be replaced in a by-election.

Another notable retiree is Lib Dem Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who wanted to retire in 2006, instead taking a leave of absence (though he returned in 2009), and asking people to refer to him as Mr Andrew Phillips.

This is obviously quite a small sample to draw on, so it’s worth questioning whether it’s likely to represent any wider trends. The table below from 2012 suggests not.

chris-walker-blog-03-08-2015-graph-lords-peers

While the Conservatives did have more peers over 80, there isn’t a significant difference, and the median age across all affiliations is broadly similar. Indeed, the one potential demographic clustering appears to be Labour peers in their sixties (most likely a legacy of the Blair/Brown years) – which may mean a larger than usual number of Labour retirements in the next 15-20 years.

Dissolution Honours

David Cameron is unsurprisingly therefore keen to balance the numbers more in his favour in the Lords, and like all Prime Ministers before him will start with the Dissolution Honours List, normally issued shortly after an election, but which this time round we’re still waiting for. The current expectation for newly created peers is just under 50, made up of:

  • 30 Conservatives
  • 10 Lib Dems
  • 8 Labour

While that will make the numbers somewhat more favourable for the Government, it will still leave many challenges in the Lords and it is likely that the Prime Minister will continue to use every opportunity to increase the number of Conservative peers.

Names in the frame for elevation to the peerage include former Conservative Ministers William Hague and David Willetts and for Labour, ex-Home Secretary David Blunkett.

Working with the Lords

Clearly there are huge opportunities for charities to work with the Lords on improving legislation, and the lack of a government majority means that there is the opportunity for significant debate and government defeats where charities don’t think the Government has got things right.

However, this doesn’t mean that charities shouldn’t continue to work directly with the Government, and there’s a danger that organisations might make it more difficult for themselves to work with government departments if they consistently cause difficulties in the Lords. Remember, the Government can and will overturn Lords Amendments in the Commons, so anyone wanting to use the Lords to further campaigns must remember to do so constructively.

If you want to hear more about campaigning, and share knowledge and best practice, NCVO’s Campaigning Conference in September features a line-up including Lord Hodgson on the Lobbying Act, and Stonewall Chief Executive Ruth Hunt sharing her campaigns experience. And, if you’re interested in how to make an impact at Westminster, you can sign up to our new one day course on Influencing Parliament.

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Chris Walker Chris is a Senior External Relations Officer at NCVO, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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