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Last past the post: Cameron told to stop flood of new peers

  • @oliver_wright

The House of Lords has been over-run by an "avalanche of not-so-distinguished peers" which has turned the chamber into a "very unpleasant place" to be, the leader of Britain's independent peers has warned.

Baroness D'Souza, convener of the crossbenchers in the Lords, said that the second chamber had become overwhelmed since the election with political appointees who had brought "yah-boo" politics into the Lords.

Her comments came on the day a cross-party group of senior parliamentarians warned that there would be "disastrous consequences" unless immediate action was taken to reduce the size of the Lords. David Cameron has created 117 new peers since last May, an increase unprecedented in recent times which has taken active membership of the Lords to 792.

The size of the chamber is set to increase still further as the Coalition Agreement commits the Government to introducing "proportionality" – which would mean taking the chamber to 1,062 members.

But Lady D'Souza said the effect of the new influx of lords – many of whom are former MPs – had been to make the chamber far more partisan.

She said before the election neither party had held a majority in the chamber, which meant that the government had to rely on the support of independent crossbenchers to get legislation passed. But now the Coalition had an effective majority in the chamber and as a result it was being treated more like the Commons.

"The House of Lords has always traditionally been a courteous and gentle place," she said. "But, as evidenced by the debate around the Bill to introduce AV and boundary changes, what you are getting now is a politically partisan chamber with shouting and insults. It can be a very unpleasant place."

Lady D'Souza said she put the blame at the door of the new members. "We used to have a distinguished dribble of new peers but, since the election, that has become an avalanche of not-so-distinguished peers. Some of them are very autocratic with staff."

Her comments would appear to be backed up by the voting records of new Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers. These show that, of the 71 new appointees since last May, 64 have not once voted against the Government.

Yesterday's report, entitled House Full, was published by University College London's Constitution Unit with the endorsement of peers including the former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, the former Commons speaker Baroness Boothroyd, the Labour cabinet minister Lord Adonis, the former Tory cabinet minister Lord Forsyth, the former Liberal leader Lord Steel of Aikwood, and the former Master of the Rolls Lord Woolf.

It said that, as well as the rising cost associated with having more peers, the increase in members over the past year had had "significant effects on the chamber's functioning". These included "overcrowded conditions", in terms of office space and even in the chamber itself, and a "more fractious atmosphere" as peers have to compete to take part in debates.

A move away from the traditionally "non-partisan ethos" had also been noted, it said. It added: "In order to avoid disastrous consequences for the House of Lords, we conclude that the current system of appointments must change." The report called for an "absolute cap" of 750 members – and for retirements to be allowed for the first time.

While the Government is committed to reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, the Coalition Agreement also states that "Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election". Yesterday's report said this aim was "unrealistic" and required the appointment of at least another 269 peers.

The report's author and deputy director of the Constitution Unit, Meg Russell, said: "The fear is that David Cameron may destroy the Lords through this volume of appointments."

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "The Government will be bringing forward a draft Bill before the end of May proposing a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords. The current system of appointing peers will therefore remain until the Government's reforms are in place."

* Nick Clegg yesterday insisted he was thick-skinned enough to deal with personal attacks in the run-up to the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum.

Mr Clegg denied suggestions his stance was causing problems with his working relationship with David Cameron – but said the No camp's tactics were becoming "desperate".

He said: "When people start mudslinging they are rather desperate. You have to ask why are they doing that – it's because they want to avoid the argument. They are trying to defend the indefensible."

The overcrowded chamber?

792 Current membership of the House of Lords. Of these: 218 are Conservative; 93 are Liberal Democrat; 243 are Labour; 184 are crossbenchers; 25 are Lords Spiritual; and 29 belong to other parties.

117 New peers introduced since the 2010 general election. Of these, 47 are Conservative, 24 are Liberal Democrat, 39 are Labour and seven belong to other parties.

3 of the new lords are significant Conservative donors (Lords Glendonbrook, Fink and Edmiston).

37 of the new lords are former MPs, MSP or MEPs. (Conservative: 13. Lib Dems: 5. Labour: 17. Others: 2.)

374 peers were appointed by Tony Blair between 1997 and 2007 (an average of 37 a year). David Cameron has been appointing them at a rate equivalent of 128 a year. Gordon Brown averaged 12 a year.

64 of the 71 new Liberal Democrat or Conservative peers have never voted against the Government.

1,062 number of members the upper chamber would need to make it properly proportional (ie, reflecting the way the electorate voted).

Research by Joseph Dyke and Catherine Wylie