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By Ben Guerin
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Labour's "Odd" Plans For Lords Reform Cast Doubt Over Abolition

Image by: Lisa Ryder / Alamy Stock Photo

6 min read

Labour faces questions over whether plans to reform the House of Lords in its first term of government will undermine the party's long-term ambition to abolish the Upper Chamber.

Sources say Labour's General Election manifesto – due to be published on Thursday – includes measures to introduce an upper age limit for peers of 80 and scrap by-elections for hereditary peers, as first reported by The Times.

Party sources have confirmed to PoliticsHome that abolition is not included in the manifesto, which has frustrated some Labour members and campaigners for constitutional reform. In late 2022, leader Keir Starmer said the House of Lords was "indefensible" and that a Labour government would abolish it — but did not specify when. 

PoliticsHome has also been told that Labour plans to introduce a tougher participation requirement whereby peers would lose their seat if they are not active enough as members of the Lords. Currently legislation allows for the removal of any peer who does not attend the Lords during a whole session.

One effect of Labour's age limit policy, so far overlooked, is that it would disproportionately impact the party's own group of peers, potentially requiring leader Starmer as prime minister to appoint even more new peers than otherwise necessary.

The impact would be uneven because the average age of Labour peers is currently 74 – seven years older than the average age of Conservative members, which is 67.

After 14 years of Conservative government, Labour has considerably fewer peers: 172 compared to 275 Tory members of the Lords.

PoliticsHome research has found that, of the 23 sitting peers who have died in the last 16 months, two are Lib Dems, three are Conservative, eight are crossbench, and 10 are Labour.

“If this is done in the short term, it will further disadvantage an incoming government, because of the disparity that exists in the House at the moment,” said Baroness Hayter, a senior Labour peer and member of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber.

“Therefore it could necessitate even more Labour peers being brought in, to ensure that the government can get its business through.”

It is thought that the new retirement age would be phased in during the parliament in which a peer turns 80, with those who have aged out expected to leave at the end of Labour’s first term. The measure is nonetheless thought to necessitate Starmer immediately appointing a significant batch of new Labour peers.

“We are talking about two or three dozen, I would think. More or less straight away,” said Hayter.

“We've hardly got enough to staff our front bench,” the Labour peer added. “There's a big job of work that goes on. People think we just turn up and vote, but actually to do all the committee work, to do all the work on legislation, to do that scrutiny, we need more people with the time to do the heavy lifting.”

Hayter is not against the introduction of an age limit in principle. “It's sensible and we should allow people to retire gracefully. But I'm really sad about losing Alf Dubs,” she said.

PoliticsHome understands that the concern about losing Lord Dubs, the 91-year-old former MP rescued from the Nazis on the Kindertransport as a child, was raised by a Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) member during the ‘Clause V’ manifesto meeting last week. Another NEC member pointed out that US President Joe Biden is over 80.

Concern has been raised about how Labour's Lords reform plans could impact Alf Dubs (Alamy)

Conservative peer Lord Norton, also a member of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber cross-party group, described Labour’s decision to reform the Lords using an age cap as “a bit odd” considering the party would lose “quite a lot of Labour peers because that's the oldest party in the House”.

Norton highlighted that the number of Labour peers Starmer would need to create would depend on whether he wanted parity with the Conservative group.

“For parity alone, you need to create 100… and you’d still be behind,” Norton said. “You'd probably need a fairly big tranche initially, perhaps not 100 but bring in more later as well.”

Labour’s other manifesto pledge to end hereditary peer by-elections, slowly phasing out those peers, is also considered by some to be a missed opportunity for Labour.  

In an interview with The House last year, Labour Lords leader Baroness Smith called the by-elections a “nonsense”, saying: “We’re all terribly embarrassed by them.”

But of the 90 hereditary peers, 46 are Conservative and only four are Labour, which means removing the hereditary peers altogether instead of only axeing by-elections would go some way to solving Labour’s numbers problem.

“I'm surprised if they're not considering that,” said Hayter. “Because obviously that would then make up for some of the imbalance in making Labour peers retire. It would help the gender balance as well, because all the hereditaries are men.”

Labour “understandably” needs more peers, Norton said. “It's not just party balance, but to sustain their side of the House, because their front bench at the moment is really under pressure.”

The political battles of recent years have taken a toll on Labour peers. “This is a working House, we need people there voting at night. At the moment, the government has not been very sympathetic to the fact that Labour is old,” Hayter said.

Known in recent years for their highly successful operation under the leadership of Baroness Smith, successive episodes of ‘ping-pong’ have frequently kept the Labour group working long into the night.

Peers of all parties and none have had to do the same. While chairing committee proceedings on the Illegal Migration Bill last year, Conservative peer Lord Lexden took his seat at 9.30pm on Wednesday 7 June and left it at 4.16am on Thursday 8 June.

Writing in The House, the then-78-year-old peer said: “I have been much commended in delicate fashion for needing no short break. My doctor, who has been a little concerned about some aspects of my ageing system, telephoned with warm congratulations.”

Norton criticised the age cap as “arbitrary”, saying: “It doesn't take into account quality. You can cut off people who are really active contributors to the House, while retaining someone under the age of 80 who makes no contributions at all.”

The Tory peer cited the example of the former lord chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who attended almost every day “making really incisive contributions” until he retired at the age of 96.

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