Question for Short Debate
My Lords, this debate is limited to one hour. That is very tight and, in order to give time for the Minister to respond, all noble Lords apart from the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, need to stick strictly to no more than two minutes.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord True will note the number of Peers contributing to this short debate. Each, as has been mentioned, will have two minutes. My noble friend will have 10 minutes to say what he could probably say in 10 seconds: namely, that the Government have no plans to put the House of Lords Appointments Commission on to a statutory basis. They should have: for some of us, this is unfinished business.
I have the honour to be convener of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. My noble friend Lord Cormack chairs the campaign. We formed it more than 20 years ago to make the case for strengthening the existing House in the valuable work that it does. The key changes that we sought were embodied in the House of Lords Bill introduced by Lord Steel of Aikwood. Some of what we included in that Bill we have managed to get enacted, primarily through the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. The House of Lords Bill included a clause establishing the House of Lords Appointments Commission—that is, putting it on to a statutory basis. I wish to explain why it should be done and how it can be done.
In an Ipsos MORI poll in 2007, respondents were asked which factors were important to determine the legitimacy of the House of Lords. The option attracting the most support was “Trust in the appointment process”—75% of respondents ranked it as “very important” and 19% as “important”. Trust in the appointment process ranked higher than “The House considering legislation carefully” and “Having many Members who are expert in their field”. I note that it considerably outstripped “Having some Members elected by the public”. How appointments are made is thus crucial to how the House is seen by the public. At present, the process falls short. At times it is mired in controversy, and there is little transparency in the selection of nominees. However worthy the individual nominees may be, their merits are lost in media criticism of the process and public perceptions of the type of person elevated to the peerage.
The existing Appointments Commission examines all nominations and puts forward nominations for Cross-Bench Peers, but it is limited in two significant respects. It can examine nominations only in terms of propriety, not suitability, and it is the creature of the Prime Minister. Having an Appointments Commission that is not only independent of the Prime Minister but is seen to be independent strengthens both the Prime Minister, confirming the merits of the persons nominated, and the legitimacy of the House.
Putting the Appointments Commission on to a statutory basis is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Powers will have to be vested in it and, I shall argue, can be without jeopardising the Prime Minister’s role as principal adviser to the sovereign in recommending individuals for peerages. How, then, can it be done? As noted in the Library briefing for this debate, I have introduced a Bill that has now had its First Reading. I have sought in it to ensure that the commission can have an impact through vetting nominations to ensure that they meet a high-quality threshold, through requiring the Prime Minister to await the advice of the commission before putting forward names to the Crown, and through ensuring transparency in the process by requiring the Prime Minister, and other party leaders as appropriate, to inform the commission of the process by which the names were selected to be put forward. As noble Lords will see, it also includes provision for the Prime Minister to have regard to the principles that I believe are widely supported by the House, not least in terms of size.
The case for putting the commission on to a statutory basis has been made by a number of bodies, including the Government, over the past two decades. It was made by the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords, chaired by my noble friend Lord Wakeham. It was a proposal that was accepted by the Government but not acted on. I served on the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill, which also endorsed the proposal. As I said, it was a key provision of the House of Lords Bill that was variously debated and widely supported in your Lordships’ House.
The proposal itself is modest relative to the report of the royal commission, which recommended transferring the power to nominate Peers from the Prime Minister to the Appointments Commission. My proposal would retain the existing position whereby the Prime Minister recommends names to the sovereign, although he would be required to wait until such time as he had received the advice of the commission. The Government, in 2001, proposed that the commission should have responsibility for managing the balance and size of the House. My Bill provides for the commission to offer advice on how to reduce the size of the House, but does not empower it to determine the size. This, therefore, is a modest proposal, and it may be prudent for the Government to accept it rather than wait until overtaken by more radical demands for change.
When questioned on the issue of reform of this House, my noble friend Lord True said that the Government did not support piecemeal reform. Well, as a Conservative, I do—and so, too, to judge by their election manifesto, do the Government. The 2019 manifesto stated that the Conservative Government had enacted legislation to enable Peers to retire and to remove those who committed a serious offence. That was not strictly accurate. What they had done was support, or at least acquiesce in, the passage of the Private Member’s Bill that I drafted, which was introduced in the Commons on behalf of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber by Dan Byles and taken through this House by Lord Steel. That was piecemeal reform, which I believe has proved its worth.
The same applies to the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015, introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. She is unable to be here for this debate, but she would very much like to have been, to support the case for putting the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis.
Even if my noble friend Lord True says that the Government have no plans to place the commission on a statutory basis, he could indicate a willingness on the part of the Government not to oppose such a move. Simply saying that there are no plans does not mean that the Government do not accept the merits of the case. My noble friend has not really engaged with the principle. He has the opportunity today to say whether he accepts the principle. The Government need not commit significant resources, including time, to getting a measure through. They can instead facilitate the passage of the Bill or another Private Member’s Bill with a similar aim. The important thing is to get it on the statute book.
In short, it can be done. My contention is that it should be done. It will not undermine the position of the Prime Minister but rather bolster it, certainly in the case of a confident Prime Minister, in making nominations, and it will enhance the legitimacy of this House.
My Lords, in my priceless two minutes I will raise a couple of issues that I believe any statutory appointments commission would need to address. The first is the question of political balance. Since the House of Lords Act 1999, which removed most of the hereditaries, it has always been assumed that the governing party should never have an overall majority of those taking a party Whip. There was never any possibility of the last Labour Government dominating politics in the Lords. Indeed, for eight of Labour’s 13 years in office, the Conservative Opposition had more Members than the Labour Government. Even at its highest point in 2010, the number of Labour Peers was 235 and the number of Tories was 214. How different things are today, after 11 years of Tory Government. There are now 263 Tories and just 173 Members of the Labour Opposition.
Perhaps even more significant is the balance between the Government’s supporters on the one hand and the main opposition parties on the other. Today, for the first time since the 1999 Act, the Conservative Party in the Lords has a majority over Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined—something no one thought was ever likely to happen under any Government. That is why I believe that any appointments commission should have a remit to report on the effects of its decisions on the political balance in the House—not to make those decisions, but to report on their effect.
Very briefly, I cannot make reference to a possible statutory appointments commission without mentioning its impact on the system of by-elections for hereditary Peers. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, in his excellent Bill says that
“the Commission must have regard to the diversity of the United Kingdom population.”
I, of course, want the by-elections to end, but any statutory appointments commission must surely apply that principle of diversity to the hereditaries as well as to the life Peers. I remind the House that the 92 hereditaries include no women and no ethnic minorities—and that, to put the icing on the cake, 50% of the hereditaries elected under the by-election system went to Eton. So I would require the Appointments Commission to report on the extent to which the register of hereditary Peers meets the requirement of having regard to the diversity of the United Kingdom—and all I can say is good luck in doing that.
My Lords, we have to recognise that Mr Johnson has damaged this House in three ways. First, he has not followed the advice of the Appointments Commission on a point of propriety, damaging his own reputation but also ours. Secondly, the flow of Peers coming here on the recommendation of the commission seems to have dwindled to zero. Thirdly, of course, he has ignored the Burns report, ignored the restraint of his predecessor and reversed all the progress that we had made in reducing the size of the House. So, let us be realistic. Of course the commission should be on a statutory basis, but what is the chance of the Prime Minister agreeing to do that? What is the chance of the Prime Minister agreeing to limit his options, to fetter himself even very loosely? I think there is no chance at all, unless we separate the honour from the job, as the Burns report in fact recommended.
Detailed legislative work is an acquired taste, and it is clear that some of the recent creations have no desire to acquire it. So be it. If they do not want to do the job, why could they not just join the majority of Peers who do not sit in this place and do not receive a Writ of Summons, the majority being those culled in 1999 and their successors, as well as the growing number of us who have wisely decided to retire—a number that would grow much faster if the Burns “two out, one in” recommendation were accepted? The commission’s scrutiny of candidates to work in this House could then be confined to only those willing to work here, and not to the unwilling who would not come. Thirty years ago, the Queen was good enough to give me a knighthood. She did not require me to pick up a lance and get on a horse. It is was an honour with no equestrian duties attached—which was a relief to me and could be a precedent for the House.
My Lords, on a day when the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has been credited by the Daily Telegraph with world-leading rules on online child safety, and scientists and technologists as distinguished as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, have shared with us their vast expertise on the Environment Bill, no further reminder is needed of how the effectiveness and reputation of this House have been enhanced by Peers recommended for appointment by the Appointments Commission. It is a shame, as my noble friend Lord Kerr has just said, that this stream of talent has recently slowed to a trickle. As one of just five Cross-Benchers since 2015 to have enjoyed the good fortune—the outrageous good fortune, in my case—of appointment by this route, I support the Private Member’s Bill brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and his remarks in opening this debate.
Another appointed second Chamber, the Canadian Senate, has been transformed over the past five years by the creation of an independent advisory board made up of federal and provincial members. The board recommends five non-political appointees for each vacancy and the Prime Minister chooses between them. Independent Senators now outnumber those with a political affiliation. The House of Lords Library reported last year that almost 60% of Canadians thought that these changes would improve the Senate in the longer term.
The constitution of Canada prevents the board being established under statute, but no such constraint exists here. So I hope noble Lords will share my view that this is not only a “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative”, as the award-winning headline famously had it, but an idea that we could and should build upon.
My Lords, whether or not the Appointments Commission is made statutory or not is a sideshow. The real issue is whether the Prime Minister has the final say on appointments to your Lordships’ House, and whether he can therefore determine its size. I am clear that he should retain that power. Opinions from the commission on individual appointments or the size or composition of the House should never be binding on the Prime Minister or otherwise inhibit his actions.
Ironically, the commission itself has provided the best evidence for not changing the existing constitutional arrangements. Let us look at the commission’s record. For the last 20 or so years of its life, it has recommended the appointment of 74 new Cross-Bench Peers—how successful has that been? From the early days, it was clear that there was a desperate search for diversity, but the most important diversity—that of perspective and thought—seems to have been ignored. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Cross Benches have become more representative of metropolitan liberal groupthink. They cannot be relied upon to reflect the views of the British public. Our debates and votes on Brexit in 2019 are all the proof that is needed of that.
As my noble friend Lord Strathclyde has observed, this House has become a House of opposition to the Government. It is a no-brainer that the Prime Minister must tilt the balance back, even if that means increasing the size of the House. He should not have to wait for the opinions of a commission to do so.
My Lords, I strongly support the comments made this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and his Bill. As he said, successive reports have recommended that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be on a statutory basis, and we have had several Bills to that effect. I fail to understand the Government’s rationale for their reluctance and resistance to doing so. Other significant appointment commissions, namely the Judicial Appointments Commission and the Civil Service Commission, are on a statutory basis. Would the Minister agree that unconstrained power of the Prime Minister in making appointments of public significance is inappropriate, and that statutory checks and balances are needed in the appointments process to maintain legitimacy and the trust of the House?
My Lords, I was very taken with the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that there should be a division between those who came here to work and those who received a peerage as an honour. Indeed, it reminded me of something the late Lord Weatherill said to me many years ago. He said that the trouble with this House was that it was never decided whether it was an honour or a job. I think that remains true, unfortunately. I certainly regard it as both an honour and a job, and this is why it is important that we have a commission set up on a statutory basis to look more closely at the suitability of candidates, particularly their willingness and ability to work. That should be a dominant and key theme when anybody is looking at a potential candidate to come to this place. We do not want those who just enjoy the honour but do not do any of the work.
It is also extremely important, and a great possibility of the commission, to widen the spread geographically. There is sometimes a thought that too many people come from the south-east, but I think that overlooks the fact that many people have come from different parts of the United Kingdom and settled here in the south-east because of—what should we call it?—the gravitational pull. None the less, it would be a wonderful opportunity for the commission to look at the further reaches of the kingdom—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the far-flung parts—and so get a better balance. This would be a particularly helpful way of proceeding.
I am conscious of the time, so any further remarks will remain with me.
My Lords, recent appointments to the Lords have been scandalous on four counts. The first is cash for honours, under which the Government have bestowed peerages principally to party donors—the most outrageous being when the recommendation of refusal by HOLAC was overruled by the Prime Minister for the first time ever.
Secondly, many of those ennobled, including the noble Lords, Lord Spencer, Lord Bamford, Lord Cruddas and Lord Ranger, have hardly spoken or asked a question since their appointment. They bring this House into disrepute.
Third is the blatant contempt for the views of this House by the Prime Minister, ignoring our decision that the size of the House should be reduced, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, rightly said.
Finally, there is the appointment of so many Brexit fanatics, including some who purported to be Labour, solely because they campaigned with the Tories on Brexit. Incidentally, they might have the courtesy to sit on the other side of the House, where they belong, when they are in here.
The Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act and the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act could and should be invoked. Until HOLAC attains a degree of independence, which statutory provision would give it, I fear we are in for much more of this corruption.
My Lords, I give general support to the idea put forward by my noble friend Lord Norton, but I reflect on the words of my noble friend Lady Noakes that any appointments commission would probably end up appointing people like itself. That concerns me. For a start, I doubt I would be here if there was such an appointments commission. I also doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would be here, because he tends to step out of line from time to time. I am happy with there being an appointments commission, but I think it should have clear criteria for turning people down, and that should then be the end of things; it should not be able to be overruled.
I also think we need to look again at political balance. Although my party has far more than the other parties, I do not think it healthy for this to carry on. I would like to see some agreement on political balance, because one of the strengths of this House is that it can defeat the Government. As was said to me when I first came here by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, who was then the Chief Whip, the difference between here and the Commons is that in the Lords you must win arguments and in the Commons you can just win votes. That is an important principle of this place.
My final point is that we need to distinguish between honorary peerages and working Peers. I came here to work but some people did not. Basically, they take up a place that they should not be taking up, so we also need to look carefully at having working Peers.
My Lords, the old saying goes that hard cases make bad law. I would like to paraphrase that a little and say that lone cases make bad law. It appears that we are having this debate today because the Prime Minister chose to ignore a recommendation from the House of Lords Appointments Commission as to the fitness of a certain noble Member to join our ranks. In some quarters, this has raised a terrible stink because the Prime Minister has, shock-horror, exercised his powers of patronage. In our political universe, if anyone should have powers of patronage it is surely the Prime Minister, the democratically elected Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, elevated to the leadership of his party by a vote of its members and elected Prime Minister by a stonking majority by the people of this country. Against this background, the notion that he should be stopped from deciding who to send to this House by placing an unelected commission on a statutory basis is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut—and a poorly aimed one at that.
The day will come when we are reformed, though it is unclear how. That will be the moment to consider these things. In the meantime, does my noble friend the Minister not agree that it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie?
My Lords, I fear that I take a rather contrary view to the noble Baroness, but then perhaps I am a rather awkward nut. I will contribute a few words from the point of view of another person who, like my noble friend Lord Anderson, joined your Lordships’ House through the HOLAC route. This gave me an impressive insight into the workings of the commission and convinced me that this must surely be the most democratic route into your Lordships’ House that exists. Although it would be naive to think that the support of highly regarded and influential Peers does not play an important role, that is true in any walk of life where references are required.
I assure your Lordships that the stages of submission and interview are no doddle. I recall being thoroughly put through my paces by the late Lord Hart of Chilton—Garry Hart. In the same year, 2013, my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox was the other recommendation—so, in that year, an internet expert and a musician were ennobled. Thus, the desire to have the commission bring in people who might widen the expertise of the House but would not perhaps emerge through the political system of nominations was continued, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Anderson of Ipswich.
Given its impressive work, HOLAC surely deserves and needs to be put on a statutory basis. Otherwise, we risk insulting people who do hours and hours of work thinking very carefully about who should and who should not be Members of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I fear that putting the commission on a statutory basis would not conceal our Achilles heel: the fact that we are so unrepresentative as an institution, particularly on disability. The presumption of privilege that permeates how your Lordships’ House operates only, sadly, emboldens those who would deride us as a relic of a bygone age, ripe for abolition.
We know that the demographics of your Lordships’ House do not reflect the diversity of the people whom we serve. Indeed, the whole Westminster bubble is still made up of, exists and functions for non-disabled people. It is where the UK’s 14 million disabled people are always the other—for and to whom things are done.
Today, in 2021, you can be the chief executive of a hugely successful FTSE 250 company while also being a wheelchair user—yet the layout of this Chamber and that of the other place make it impossible for a wheelchair user to speak from the Dispatch Box. However inadvertent, disability discrimination is built into the very fabric and modus operandi of your Lordships’ House. It is the status quo, and it is a completely untenable situation.
I appeal to the Prime Minister to send us more new blood that reflects the richness of the UK’s diverse talent pool and to the House authorities to redouble their efforts to put our own House in order. We do not need a statutory commission to make that happen; we just need the political will.
My Lords, according to today’s Times, the publisher of Burke’s Peerage put in a draft letter to Mahfouz Marei Mubarak, saying that his donations to Prince Charles’s charity would ensure him a knighthood, followed by membership of the House of Lords. We do not know if that letter was sent, but we do know that Mr Mubarak received a CBE and that the author of the letter was instrumental in getting that. We also know that this episode can only add to the belief that membership of your Lordships’ House can be purchased.
Unfortunately, the actions of this Government have given credence to this view—most notably, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has pointed out, in the case of the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint as a Peer someone whom the House of Lords Appointments Commission had vetoed but who had given large sums to the Conservative Party. That this decision was rewarded by the new Peer making a further substantial donation to the party perhaps should not have been surprising.
It will only further damage the standing of this House if such behaviour occurs again. The noble Baronesses, Lady Meyer and Lady Noakes, may defend the power of patronage in the Prime Minister, but surely that power can exist only if it is to be used responsibly. Putting the Appointments Commission on a statutory footing would ensure that it could only be used that way. The noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, who chaired the commission between 2008 and 2013, expressed the view even then that it needed the powers of a statutory body, and that is even more the case today.
My Lords, being a Member of your Lordships’ House is something that we treasure, but it is clearly important that the principles of the Burns committee are properly accepted and that we do not continue to inflate our size. Being here should be regarded as a vocation to public service, and those who are honoured in another way do not have to come here, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, indicated.
There are rumours swirling around even as I speak that another 30 Peers are to come here next month. I profoundly hope that that is wrong, because it is important that we have balance. It is important that no single party has an overall majority. There is no point or purpose in your Lordships’ House unless it truly scrutinises legislation and has the opportunity to ask the other place to think again, and it cannot do that unless the Government of the day are defeated from time to time. They can always put it right; the other place has the final word. That is as it should be for an elected House, but we should be able, without fear or favour, to scrutinise, to suggest improvements and amendments, and to be prepared to press them up to a point if we believe that necessary.
It is crucial, however, that there should be a degree of true impartiality in the selection of those who sit here. That can be brought into effect only if we have a proper statutory Appointments Commission. As my noble friend Lord Norton indicated, his Bill allows the Prime Minister to have the last word, and that is right—but he is not the fount of all knowledge and should not be the fount of all appointments.
My Lords, I quite agree with the proposition that we should have a statutory commission, but I argue that that is not the problem with this House. The problem is that this House has no legitimacy of its own. It is not an elected Chamber, and its only legitimacy comes from the fact that one elected person—the Prime Minister—will be trusted to make the correct appointments.
I know things go on which should not go on, and I know that many of the people here work very hard and are not here only for the honour. But, unfortunately, the honour is such that more people desire it than really deserve to be here. Unless we improve the legitimacy of this House—noble Lords will not be surprised that I would like it to be elected—we can devise as many appointments committees as we like, but the legitimacy will come only from the Prime Minister and no one else. That is our problem.
Every time this House defeats the Government, the Government are tempted to add another three dozen Members because they want this House to comply with what the other place does. That is our problem, and statutory commissions are not going to cure it, no matter how honest and good they are.
My Lords, everyone likes the idea of a neutral expert. One of the most depressing things in politics is how easy it is when you are on “Question Time” or “Any Questions?” to get a round of applause by saying about virtually any subject: “This is too important to be a political football. Why can’t all those elected politicians back off and leave it to the professionals?” Yet I have to tell noble Lords that there is no such person as a disinterested patriot who can raise his eyes above the partisan scrum and describe the true national interest. No such person exists; we all have our assumptions and prejudices. The only distinction is that some of us have to test those in elections and others do not.
I very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Desai, just said. We have, at the moment, a system where the power of appointment is with one elected person, directly elected in a constituency and then indirectly elected in another place. You might make an argument, as he did, that we should go further and have an appointments body made up of the electorate as a whole. That is a good, consistent, coherent argument. But moving in the other direction and placing the oligarchic power of appointment in the hands of an unelected group that, by definition, will like to appoint people who share its own assumptions and opinions is a step away from accountable government and would be a retrograde step.
My Lords, we should put the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis. Yes, it is a piecemeal change, but evolution not revolution is the Conservative way, and it is the way we should handle things when we change the constitution. We should ask the Appointments Commission to make sure all appointees are committed to and are capable of working in this place. We should ask the Appointments Commission, in respect of its own appointments, to ensure diversity both of roots and of thought, and to act in an advisory capacity to political parties in that regard. It should also be commenting on the percentage make-up of the House and its size.
It should operate under a mandate from Parliament. I thoroughly agree with what my noble friend Lord Hannan just said: that it should not be an oligarchy but a creature of Parliament. It needs to have that accountability. I am unimpressed by what the Appointments Commission has achieved to date in terms of working pattern and diversity. If we give a body the powers contemplated by my noble friend Lord Norton, we must be able to hold it to account.
My Lords, attacks on the alleged metropolitan elite entrenched on the Cross-Benches and on these Benches by wealthy Conservatives who grew up in the Home Counties and made their careers in the City of London are absurd. For the record, I spent the Recess on the outskirts of Bradford, not in Islington or Surrey.
Fundamentally, as the Minister will recognise, this is about the power of the Prime Minister to exercise prerogative powers without restraint. As the ability of the monarch to constrain her Prime Minister shrunk, the exercise of Crown prerogative powers by the Prime Minister was moderated by the willingness of successive political leaders to behave within the limits of what was regarded as acceptable behaviour. Eton educated political leaders were assumed to be the most trustworthy in this respect. They had been taught the importance of conventions and constraints on power, and the sense of shame for those who broke them.
Now we have an Etonian Prime Minister who does not accept the importance of constraints or of advisory bodies in ensuring that conventions are observed and who appears to have no sense of shame. Today we are discussing the Lords Appointments Commission, but this also applies to observance of the Ministerial Code, the appointment of non-executive directors to Whitehall departments and to many other aspects of the standards of our public life.
When politicians refuse to observe established conventions of appropriate behaviour, it becomes necessary to strengthen those rules by statute. Decisions on the size of our second Chamber and the qualifications for membership of it have constitutional implications. I accept that David Lloyd George in his time abused prime ministerial power in Lords appointments. That was corrupt. Boris Johnson is abusing prerogative power in the same way. To paraphrase Lord Acton, all power corrupts; unconstrained power corrupts without constraints.
My Lords, one of the clearest things this debate has illustrated is the pride and the value that we place in our work as Members of your Lordships’ House. As has been pointed out, as an unelected House we do not have the legitimacy or authority of elections, which is why the integrity of appointments is all the more important. We value that integrity.
Looking at reform of your Lordships’ House, I do not think that just putting the commission on a statutory basis does what the noble Lord says, and he did not argue that as a standalone. But contrary to the idea that we cannot make any reform unless we have a big bang reform—that piecemeal reform should be derided —we should accept piecemeal reform to address some of the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Shinkwin and Lord Grocott, about the social balance of your Lordships’ House. We should not deride or ignore piecemeal reform.
The fact that we do not have the authority or legitimacy of elections in no way reduces the commitment or integrity of our membership. In fact, it makes it all the more important that we have that confidence. The role of the commissioners of the House of Lords Appointments Commission is to advise and make recommendations to the Prime Minister, and I think that is the right way to do things. But they are obliged by their code to abide by the highest standards of impartiality, integrity and objectivity, and I use that as an illustration of the expectations this House has of the members of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The noble Lord made a powerful case in that regard.
The urgency in looking at this now is because the Prime Minister rejected the advice of HOLAC. This could not possibly have been the first time a Prime Minister did not agree with had been said by HOLAC, but it is the first time it has been overridden in such a blatant way. In looking at how the House of Lords Appointments Commission operates, we should take note of what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has said previously about having the resources and the ability to look in more detail at its work. This raises wider issues, and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, talking about the political balance of your Lordships’ House and what has happened under Conservative Prime Ministers—first David Cameron and now Boris Johnson—is equally important to the integrity of how we work.
I have to say that attacks on Cross Benchers because they do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is really not the way this House should operate. Every Member of this House is equal. Some of us bring party political affiliations, and I make no apology for those, but others do not. We have to accept that if they do not have party political affiliations, sometimes they will agree with us and, as I found on many other occasions, sometimes they will disagree.
I thank the noble Lord for raising this issue. The Minister has more than his 10 minutes to reply, and I look forward to perhaps a more positive response than we have had previously.
My Lords, it is very good to see the old House back. I fear that one thing that might not change is that from this Dispatch Box I am not necessarily able to give the noble Baroness opposite the delightful response that she might wish.
I thought it was an interesting short debate, and it is right that we debate these topics. The only speech to which I took exception, which I am sad about, because it was by a noble Lord I greatly respect, was by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who talked about scandal and corruption. There was a sub-theme that was taken up by one or two others who spoke. It serves none of us to present an image of this House or any political party as imbued and filled with scandal, corruption and fixing of the kind which the noble Lord implied. It helps no one. I could say that those in glass houses should not throw bricks, but I am not going to go back over ancient history that does not help any of us.
I thank my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for the spirit and intelligence with which, as ever, he put forward his arguments. He spoke with the authority of, as he described it, the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. I always feel, when that great pressure group is mentioned, that I should go to the House of Lords Library after the debate and look out for the minutes of this extremely powerful group that seeks to influence the composition of Parliament and the avowed list of its members. Those matters may well be available in your Lordships’ House, but given that we have heard from a spokesman for that group, I think that many in the House would like to know more about it.
I thank my noble friend for this opportunity to discuss the important work of the House of Lords Appointments Commission; it is important work. As many of us will recall, the commission was set up in 2000 after a period in which—I am sorry to remind the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, of this—there had been, shall I say, considerable comment on the nature of appointments to your Lordships’ House. It is an independent, advisory, non-departmental public body and its purpose, as noble Lords well know, is to recommend non-party-political appointments to this place as well as to advise on all House of Lords appointments for propriety. I think it would be fairly acknowledged by noble Lords on all sides of the House that this is a job that the commission does well and has done well. In doing that job, it is treated with all due respect—full respect—by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, as it was by preceding Prime Ministers.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made a point that is important in an appointed House. As he knows, if we have a non-elected House and there is an elected House, the public decide the balance between the parties. However, the balance of political strength in the House is obviously always an issue for discussion and consideration; my noble friend Lord Balfe made a similar point. I remind the House of what was said by my noble friends on this side: a commanding majority was given to my right honourable friend Mr Johnson in the last election. Despite what was said, it is a travesty to say that the Conservative Party is in a position to dominate your Lordships’ House. I respectfully refer noble Lords to the three Divisions that have already taken place today and the others that I suspect will take place after dinner. The fact is that, numerically, the Conservative Party is 130 short of a majority; of course, it is far more than that in mathematical terms because the appointment of more Peers would increase the number.
The background is that, at the end of the period of the struggles over Brexit, this House fell away from one of its duties, which is to pay due respect to the opinion of the public. We lived through a period in that zombie Parliament in which the House of Commons and some Members of your Lordships’ House made it difficult for the Government to be carried on. One of the fundamental principles of our Parliament is that a Government must be able to get their business. That does not mean that they must win every vote—the Government do not ask to win every vote; they wish to listen to the points of view put forward by your Lordships’ House, and indeed always do—but, at the end of the day, the Government must be able to get their business. That is the background to this debate; I will come back to it a little later.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, made an interesting point, which was taken up by others, including my noble friend Lady Fookes. He asked whether it was necessary that everyone who wishes to have a peerage, or who is felt worthy of having one, needs to be a Member of your Lordships’ House. That is an idea that I have heard mooted before. It is not something on which I am going to comment in this debate, but I will simply say that I thought the noble Lord made an interesting point.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, complained about the representation of Cross-Bench Peers in the House. Setting aside the category of non-affiliated Peers, about which many of us with different points of view may have opinions, Cross-Bench Peers currently account for 23% of the composition of your Lordships’ House. Almost any proposition for reform that has come forward in the time that I have been following your Lordships’ House has said that somewhere between 20% and 25% is probably about right for the independent Cross-Bench element.
I am grateful that it was not intended. What I heard was a complaint that not enough Cross-Bench Peers were being appointed, and I think Hansard will show that the noble Lord made that point. One of the considerations regarding who is to be appointed is the overall balance in the House, a point that has been made from every perspective in this debate. To me it is perfectly legitimate, in the light of the noble Lord’s complaints about the number of appointments, to point out the current level of composition of Cross-Bench Peers.
The commission has two main functions, which are to nominate and recommend individuals for appointment as non-party-political life Peers and to vet nominations for life Peers, including those nominated by the political parties, in order to ensure high standards of propriety. I repeat that I believe it does this well. I am not going to follow any personal attacks on any Member of your Lordships’ House. I believe in the traditional principles of this House that all noble Lords stand on their honour and behave honourably, and I believe that those who are sent here and will serve here will demonstrate that they can aspire to and deliver those high standards.
It is worth noting that the conclusions reached by the House of Lords advisory committee regarding nominations are advisory. That is the gravamen of this debate although, as far as I can hear, no one who was arguing for a statutory commission said that it should be more than advisory. Everyone concedes—including even my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth; it is in his Bill, as I read it—that the Prime Minister should be able, in exceptional circumstances, to ignore and appoint outside the advice of the appointments commission. The conclusions reached by the commission are considered by any Prime Minister, alongside other wider factors, on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, it is for the Prime Minister to recommend which individuals should be appointed to the House of Lords. As my noble friend Lady Noakes pointed out—firmly, I accept—it is the constitutional position in this country, as was also implied in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, about the disfavour into which David Lloyd George fell, that ultimately there is accountability for a Prime Minister in the way in which he uses that power.
I do not wish to pick an argument with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on opinion polls, but while he was speaking I looked up the 2017 poll to which he referred. In it, when people were asked which were the most important factors in determining how legitimate the House of Lords was as a Chamber of Parliament, the first, with 37%, was the view that the House should make decisions in accordance with public opinion, while the second was that the House should consider legislation carefully. My noble friend Lady Noakes alluded to one of the problems with those who have been appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. This is no criticism of the commission; it is a fact. When it came to the first big vote in 2017 on seeking to obstruct Brexit, the Cross-Benchers who had been appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission between 2001 and 2015 were split five to one against the Government, a few months after a 52% to 48% referendum.
On the advice of the Prime Minister, the sovereign, who is the fount of all honour, formally confers all peerages, and I believe that should continue to be the case. The House of Lords Appointments Commission has an important advisory role, but it is advice. That is the situation that was created by a Labour Government and operated by them for 10 years, by the coalition for five and by a Conservative Government for six.
The Government have no plans to change the role or remit of the Appointments Commission. The organisation’s legal status does not affect its remit. It will continue to advise on appointments in the same way that it does now. I can assure the House that the Prime Minister will continue to place great weight on the commission’s careful and considered advice. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, made a courageous point, which is never welcome to your Lordships’ House, but I do not think it is specifically germane to the question of my noble friend Lord Norton.
To sum up, the Government consider that the House of Lords Appointments Commission performs an important role in advising the Prime Minister on appointments. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton. The Prime Minister continues to place great weight on this advice, and the Government have no plans to place the commission on a statutory footing.