Oh my Lord! UK's upper chamber is full to bursting

AP News
Posted: Apr 20, 2011 12:21 PM
Oh my Lord! UK's upper chamber is full to bursting

Squeeze in Sir, excuse me Earl. Lawmakers say the red leather benches of Britain's House of Lords are packed to bursting _ with Parliament's upper chamber straining to cope with the needs of almost 800 members.

Legislators complain the overcrowding means a scramble for seats, office space and slots to speak. Some grumble that an influx of new members has ushered in a bad-tempered atmosphere.

The House of Lords currently has 792 active members, a mix of appointed, hereditary and religious peers. A University College London report published Wednesday warned that the chamber had become "bloated and dysfunctional," and demanded an immediate halt to any new appointments.

"There are far too many members at the moment, and that is causing immense problems, even though not everyone always attends," said Baron George Foulkes, who was appointed to the Lords in 2005.

The 700 year-old chamber does not make laws, but has the power to amend legislation _ subject to the agreement of the House of Commons, where lawmakers are elected. House of Lords members are drawn from a host of specialist backgrounds and expected to use their wisdom to help revise planned laws.

Aside from 25 members who hold ecclesiastical offices, like the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and 91 remaining hereditary peers, the remainder are appointed to their posts _ some by an independent committee, but the majority by the prime minister.

Since he took office in May, Prime Minister David Cameron has approved the appointment of 117 people as new members of the Lords, the fastest rate since World War II.

Critics accuse him of attempting to alter the political balance of the chamber, as his Conservative Party has fewer members than its main rival, the Labour Party.

There is no limit on the number of members the House of Lords can have, and peers _ as legislators there are known _ can't retire. Their appointment lasts for life.

"Peers are faced with working in overcrowded conditions, with limited access to computers and telephones, and little or no space for staff," said the report by author Meg Russell, which also noted that limited space and reduced opportunities to speak have "created a more fractious atmosphere."

Last October, 15 seats in the chamber previously reserved for visitors were turned over to lawmakers _ even though 54 extra peers have been appointed since then. Offices once allocated to a single legislator are now shared by three, Foulkes said. During a recent debate, peers perched on steps and stood in aisles.

Russell's report said Cameron must suspend new appointments, and consider limiting the chamber to around 750 members. It also called for Lords to be allowed to retire or serve fixed 15-year terms.

"Any further increase in size could fundamentally undermine the chamber's ability to do its job," said the report, which was signed by about a dozen House of Lords members.

Critics note that Cameron's government is creating more unelected peers at the same time as it is pursuing plans to cut 50 elected lawmakers from the 650-member House of Commons.

"It's totally contradictory, and a total hypocrisy," Foulkes said.

Cameron's office said the government next month will propose plans for a fully or partially elected upper chamber. British governments have made repeated attempts to overhaul the Lords but have struggled to push through changes.