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House of Lords: Appointments Commission

Volume 777: debated on Monday 28 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to amend the terms of reference of the House of Lords Appointments Commission to ensure that recommendations by the leaders of political parties are treated in the same way as appointments to the Crossbenches and assessed for suitability as well as propriety.

The independent House of Lords Appointments Commission does an effective job in recommending candidates for non-party peerages and vetting for propriety all life Peer nominations, including those nominated by the UK political parties. It is right that the leaders of those political parties remain accountable for their nominations.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for that Answer but it does not answer my Question. Non-party nominations to this House are subject to a rigorous interview process by the Appointments Commission, which looks at whether or not they have the time and the necessary skills, and looks at the overall pattern of appointments to the House in order to ensure diversity and a range of skills. Why on earth should that not happen to party-political nominations? I can think of no other appointments in this country which do not have some kind of interview to assess suitability.

As I said to my noble friend, we believe that it is for political parties to be accountable for the Members appointed to their Benches, and that they should be responsible for ensuring that the people they nominate make an effective contribution. We believe that the current remit of the commission does an effective job in striking the balance between recommending independent candidates, ensuring the propriety of all nominees and maintaining the accountability of political parties for their nominations.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has raised these issues before. I do not entirely agree with him but he is on to something here. The Appointments Commission has a specific purpose, including the clear, transparent understanding of the criteria for appointment to this House, and we do not have that for any political appointments. Last time we had the bizarre spectacle of a leaked name publicly withdrawing from a process that had not even been publicly acknowledged. Is there not a role for either HOLAC or a similar body not to make political judgments but to examine the contribution an individual could make, their expertise, interests and skills, and their willingness to contribute as a working Peer, as well as their suitability?

The noble Baroness makes an important point about the rigour with which the commission looks at propriety, by the very case that she raises. It has an extremely important role in considering the past conduct of nominees and looking at whether anything they have done in the past may bring the House into disrepute. It has a key role in that area.

My Lords, on 7 September last year the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, who was then the Lord Privy Seal, said:

“There is a convention that if a new Peer is a special adviser, they will be able to participate in the Division Lobbies but not contribute to debates”.—[Official Report, 7/9/15; col. 1213.]

Quite frankly, that convention seems to me to have been invented in the last few years. Would it not be more appropriate if this issue were referred to the Appointments Commission for thorough examination?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. Although the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, entered the House in 2004 he did not make his maiden speech until 2007, after ceasing to be a special adviser. This approach, based on advice from the then Clerk of the Parliaments, has been accepted as practice ever since and the House authorities have confirmed that they consider that it remains appropriate.

Does the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agree that in a democracy, the best people to decide on the suitability of those who make the laws are the people themselves in a ballot?

I am afraid that the noble Lord will expect my answer not to be yes. What is most important is that this House does an incredibly important job, and we can see by looking across the House, and across all Benches, the wealth of expertise and experience that we have. This is important and we should celebrate and talk positively about the role of the House, rather than perhaps continuing to add to some of the public perception that we do not do the job which we actually do.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The commission has not discussed this issue but, speaking for myself, an amendment of the kind suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, would be not unhelpful because it is often quite difficult to radically distinguish questions of suitability and propriety.

I thank the noble Lord for his insight, particularly in view of his role, but as I said, we have no plans to amend the commission’s remit.

My Lords, I will try not to emulate the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and lead with my chin but will my noble friend amplify her earlier remarks? She said that those who make the political nominations are accountable, but accountable to whom and how?

It is beholden on political parties to ensure that they make effective nominations to contribute to the role of this House; it is beholden on us within this House to work with the best of our ability here. It is also important that we reflect the wide range of expertise and experience of people around this country, so that we can do an effective job on their behalf.

Does the Leader of the House agree that whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the Appointments Commission, it is a far better system for getting people into this House than the system of by-elections for the replacement of hereditary Peers, including a recent by-election where there were nine candidates and an electorate of three? Will the Minister acknowledge that a splendid Bill to eradicate this procedure is scheduled for a week on Friday—modesty prevents me mentioning its sponsor—and agree that the Government should give it their support?

I congratulate the noble Lord on his excellent outline of his own Bill; I think we all know that it is he who is taking this forward. I am afraid that on this occasion I cannot offer him those kinds of assurances. However, it is imperative that all people in this House play their part, and we have a range of skills and expertise that help us to do so.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House have discussions with her colleagues about the need for an amendment to a suitable forthcoming Bill to introduce a statutory ceiling on the numbers of Peers entitled to sit in your Lordships’ House, and an associated amendment to provide for a procedure to reduce the numbers of Peers to achieve a ceiling by 2020?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. As I am sure she is aware, we will be having an extensive debate on this next Monday, which I am looking forward to. I am sure there will be lots of interesting opinions and views and I urge all noble Lords who have not already signed up—a lot of noble Lords have—to do so in order that we can hear the whole range of views across the House.