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House of Lords: Appointments

Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 18 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to reform the current system of appointments to the House of Lords.

My Lords, on Monday, at Questions, the Minister gave a clear indication that there might be. He said that because of the number of government defeats in the Lords there might well be some more Tory Peers on the way, even more than at present. Can he confirm at least the facts, which are as follows: that the number of Tory Peers today as a proportion of the whole House is 33%, which is far higher than when the last Labour Government were in power, and that the Government now have an absolute majority of the political parties over Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined, something we could only dream about when a Labour Government were in power? So if despite all these advantages that this Tory Government have got the Prime Minister is worrying about losing votes, is it not clear that the problem is not the shortage of Tory Peers but a Government who simply cannot get their act together?

My Lords, there are a lot of questions there. The original Question, which I answered, was whether there are plans to reform the current system of appointments to this House, and I repeat that there are not. So far as numbers are concerned, I did not notice the noble Lord being reticent when he was advising Mr Tony Blair on appointing Labour Peers.

My Lords, I would like to ask a question about hereditary by-elections. Can it be right that membership of this House can be by an exclusive back door marked “hereditary Peers only”? Why will the Government not introduce the kind of legislation that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was talking about? Reforming legislation to remove anomalies like that would be widely welcomed, not least by this House.

My Lords, my noble friend refers to a back door. The back door is actually the law of the land, a statute passed by Parliament. Hereditary Peers continue to contribute to the work of your Lordships’ House through committee memberships and in debates in the Chamber, and I think they do so in an outstanding manner.

The Minister said that there were no plans. There are of course plans and they have had the general approval of this House. They were plans put forward by the Burns committee to enable an orderly system of retirement and replacement on a one-for-two basis, with a proper arrangement for representation of the various parties and groups in the House. Why does the Minister still set his face against those plans?

My Lords, the previous Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister have made it clear that they do not accept the principle that a cap should be placed on the size of your Lordships’ House. Such an event with an appointed House would mean that the appointed House was impervious to any response from the House of Commons in a constitutional crisis.

My Lords, I wonder if the Minister can help the House. On 18 November, in talking about the Appointments Commission, he said he was happy with the current procedure whereby the commission is able to recommend non-party-political appointments as well as advising on propriety. Could he tell us in what circumstances a recommendation of the Appointments Commission can be rejected by the Prime Minister and what justification there is for that?

My Lords, the commission’s role is an advisory one. The Prime Minister continues to place great weight on the commission’s careful and considered advice. We believe that the commission plays an important role and performs it well. Noble Lords keep returning to an individual case. The Prime Minister said he saw the case of my noble friend as a clear and rare exception, and we have no plans to change the status of HOLAC.

Has my noble friend noticed that our noble friend Lord Norton is introducing a Private Member’s Bill that would put the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis? Would he at least agree to talk with my noble friend Lord Norton with a view to the Government accepting this eminently sensible, modest measure?

My Lords, it is my habit and pleasure always to talk to Members of your Lordships’ House, and that would certainly include my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. If his Bill comes forward then I will certainly respond to it, but the Government have no plans to change the status of HOLAC. We do not agree that it should be placed on a statutory basis. It is an independent committee, and we consider its advice carefully.

My Lords, in his carefully-worded reply earlier, the Minister suggested that the present Prime Minister and the previous one were absolutely at one about not imposing a cap on the size of the House. However, is it not true that in fact they take diametrically different positions on reducing the size of the House, and that the previous Prime Minister, implementing the policy set out in the Conservative Party manifesto to reduce the size of the House, took a self-denying ordinance and helped to take forward the Burns review proposals, which has absolutely been turned on its head by the present Prime Minister?

My Lords, with respect, I do not agree that if one looks at the historical record one finds that this Prime Minister has appointed Peers at a rate that is, say, faster than that of Mr Tony Blair. I think it is agreed in this House, and it is implicit in some of the comments made by your Lordships with which I agree, that retirement has a place in your Lordships’ House. The corollary of that is that the House also needs refreshment, and that must continue.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is rather sinister that the Prime Minister refuses to publish the security evidence given to him when he wanted, and proceeded, to appoint the son of a KGB agent as a Member of this House?

No, my Lords. The noble Lord knows that I have the greatest esteem for him, and that normally disclosures relating to national security matters are not made. Generally, for any appointment, from the lowest in the land to the highest, data protection and freedom of information applies. But in this case, information has been provided separately to the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, which illustrates that the Government are acting in good faith in responding to Parliament’s requests.

My Lords, during lockdown, there were all sorts of laws of the land about gatherings and yet No. 10—the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues—broke those laws. Why are there some laws that they respect and some they feel free to break?

My Lords, that is rather wide of the Question. The law of the land is something that we should all respect and that includes, if I may say so, extreme campaigners for green issues.

My Lords, the Minister keeps on citing Tony Blair. The big difference is that Tony Blair put Peers in this House from all parties, and that this Prime Minister almost exclusively puts Conservatives in.

My Lords, we could have a debate about that particular record. The principle of refreshing the House is an important one and it applies not only to Government Benches, but I do not notice the Benches over there being understocked at the moment.

My Lords, on the point that the Minister has just made, can he remind the House how much refreshing has been done of the Government Benches during the last two, or perhaps two-and-a-half, years, as compared with the refreshing that has been done of other groups?

My Lords, if I may express an opinion, as I have already said, I am very aware of the feelings on the Benches of Her Majesty’s Opposition about the case for refreshment of those Benches. I will say no more than that, but I think it is a strong case.

Can I make a very unpopular suggestion? There is one way that we could really sort this out: that it does not matter how you get into the House; we should base it on what you do in the House. To me, that is the most important thing, and I think we have a lot of people in this House who do not actually engage. Why do we not ask them to move on, so that the other people who want to do something with this mighty House and this mighty democracy can get on with it?

My Lords, the whole House has great affection for the noble Lord, Lord Bird, but I would say that there are many Members of your Lordships’ House who may not come frequently but, when they do, your Lordships listen very carefully to their voice.