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House of Lords Appointments Commission

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 21 July 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of recent press comments, what plans they have to alter the role or composition of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

My Lords, I thank the minister for his Answer.

The Burns report, commissioned by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was warmly received in this House and by the Government of that time. Its recommendations included a limit to the number of Peers appointed to the House of Lords and changes to the authority of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Will the Government now undertake to be guided by these recommendations, or are they to be abandoned?

My Lords, I have answered on a number of occasions in relation to the Burns committee. On the specific question of whether the Government have plans to alter the role or composition of HOLAC, I repeat: we have none.

My Lords, we are no better informed than we were previously. Debates in this House have strongly endorsed the Burns committee and the calls of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for the House of Lords Appointments Commission to be on a statutory footing. The reason for this is the scale and controversial nature of appointments made by this Prime Minister. For this House to work at its best, it needs to be smaller and to be assured of the integrity of all appointments. Anything else undermines those who take on their positions to contribute in the national interest.

I have two points for the Minister, which I hope he will take back to Downing Street, whoever happens to be in occupation at the time. First, this House needs assurance that the Prime Minister will not make appointments that do not have the approval of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Secondly, is not this the first time in history where the House of Lords, instead of resisting government reform, is leading the calls for a smaller house and the end of hereditary Peer by-elections, and for HOLAC to be listened to, while it is the Government who are resisting reform?

My Lords, the role of the House of Lords Appointments Commission is greatly valued. It is advisory and one of its primary purposes is to vet nominations to the House of Lords. Your Lordships’ House is in need of being refreshed constantly. We have had the pleasure today of welcoming a new Member, just as yesterday we heard the valedictory speech of one of our most beloved and long-serving Members, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay. There is a difference, although it is unchivalrous to point it out, of 37 years between those two Members. Refreshment is part of that and any Prime Minister will always seek to do it. My observation is that there is a need for an urgent refreshment of the Front Bench opposite, whose work is outstanding and presses hard on them. I have long advocated, and hope it will happen, that there should be a refreshment of the Front Bench opposite. I hope that will not be resisted by your Lordships.

Perhaps my noble friend might suggest to the Prime Minister that, in making appointments, he adopt the policy pursued for Cross-Benchers who come here via HOLAC of getting assurance that those who are appointed will take this place seriously and do the work.

I can certainly agree with my noble friend and the implication of the question put earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. To be a Member of your Lordships’ House is one of the highest privileges that any person can ever receive. I have always tried to attend and do my duty here. I would hope that those who are appointed would behave in the same way.

My Lords, is it the Minister’s view that, to protect the integrity of your Lordships’ House, the Prime Minister should always follow the advice of the Appointments Commission?

My Lords, any Prime Minister would normally pay heed to the advice, as this Prime Minister has made clear. There is a particular case to which your Lordships continually return, where the Prime Minister made an appointment on his own judgment. I defend that particular person; he plays a valuable role in our House.

Since the establishment of the Lord Speaker’s committee, some three-quarters of political appointments have been made to the Conservative Benches. There are now 89 more Conservative Members than Labour Members and there are more Conservative Members than Labour and Liberal Democrat Members combined. If there were to be a change of Government at the next election and similar partisan behaviour were to continue, would the Minister be comfortable with a House of 900 or more Members?

My Lords, the reality of this House is who comes here and who works. Sometimes, those who do not come here very often make enormous contributions; I can think of a very distinguished scientist who comes on occasion. The Prime Minister has appointed—I should say recommended; Prime Ministers do not appoint—91 Peers since he became Prime Minister. That is not out of order with numbers in the past.

Would my noble friend accept that, at the moment we are in a—to use the word correctly—unique situation? We have a Prime Minister who we know is going. Can my noble friend assure the House that, whatever the Prime Minister does with a resignation honours list, to which Prime Ministers are entitled by tradition, he will not issue another list while he is the caretaker of No. 10 Downing Street?

My Lords, the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister and the Queen’s principal adviser. It is for the Prime Minister of the day to advise the sovereign on appointments to your Lordships’ House. I observe that, were there to be a resignation honours list—these things are all speculative—it is highly unlikely that people in other parties would be on it.

My Lords, I follow what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has said about the numbers, given that the Conservatives already outnumber the joint Opposition. There is a likelihood that Labour will form the next Government. That would offer two choice: either we have to do exactly the same and stuff this place to get the business through—which is not in the interests of this House—or there would be a major and rather dramatic cull of the sort that might not support the work of this House or our democratic function. Can the Minister take back the very serious implications of what will happen if the continuing dominance of the present Government outweighs the Opposition to the extent that they do at the moment?

My Lords, I did not notice that dominance in the massive number of defeats suffered by the Government in your Lordships’ House in the last Session. However, the noble Baroness, whose wisdom and experience I always heed, makes an important point: your Lordships’ House is a House that advises and has the capacity to ask the other House to think again; its conduct must be based on restraint and, above all, a good understanding across the Front Benches between Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and the Government of the time. Historically, this was founded in the arrangement known as the Salisbury/Addison convention. I hope that we will continue to heed that doctrine, whoever is in office.

My Lords, when I came into this House, I was told by the Conservative Chief Whip that the difference between this House and the Commons was that in the Lords you had to win arguments to win votes. It seems that we are moving towards an untenable situation where one party in this House is trying to get a majority.

Will the incoming Prime Minister commit to working with this House to achieve the aim of the Burns report? That aim was to have a responsible second House that can challenge the Government; although, as my noble friend Lord Cormack and I both know, in the final event we accept the primacy of the elected Chamber. All we are asking for is balance. When I am told the Labour Benches are going to be strengthened by eight new Peers when we get 20, I am not sure that is balance.

My Lords, I am not certain it is the role of your Lordships’ House to challenge the other place, although I agreed with the later points made by my noble friend. I believe your Lordships’ House worries at this question too much. I repeat that I do not believe fundamentally—as I have said many times from this Dispatch Box—that your Lordships’ House, which is unelected, can aspire to dictate who and how many Members are in it.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the numbers of government defeats in recent Sessions. Would that not be a case for refreshing the Government Front Bench, rather than the Opposition Front Bench?

My Lords, there is an instant when you are thinking, then you have to stand up and give a reply to your Lordships’ always-penetrating questions. I was going to say in response to my noble friend Lord Balfe that I must have been pretty awful at putting arguments from this Dispatch Box because I have lost quite a few. I think the phrase is: “them’s the breaks”. We listen to the arguments put forward by your Lordships. I have had the privilege of taking—and am currently taking—legislation through your Lordships’ House, and have gained very much from the engagement and events with Peers on all sides, and indeed in Her Majesty’s Opposition.

My Lords, the Minister makes the best of sometimes rather weak cases when putting them forward. He knows the Prime Minister much better than I do. Does he occasionally wonder whether the Prime Minister—a declared disruptor of our institutions—wants to undermine the current constitution of our second Chamber by flooding us with more and more appointments, and whether that will push us towards the next stage of much-needed reform?

My Lords, disruption is in the eye of the beholder. The historical policy of the Liberal Democrats is to replace your Lordships’ House with an elected Chamber.

My Lords, if he has the figures, or if he knows, can my noble friend say how many Peers previous Prime Ministers appointed? How many Peers were appointed by Tony Blair, for example?

My Lords, further to the excellent question from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, will the Minister admit that there is a genuine problem with a perception of a Peerage as merely an honour one above a knighthood? The reality is that we need people who will be working Peers and who will scrutinise legislation and question the Government. Surely it is right to ask anyone who is nominated to membership of this place for a guarantee that they will attend at least a minimum number of sittings and, as far as is possible, play a proper and full part in our work.

My Lords, I know that many of your Lordships feel that way, and I have intimated what I think about that in one of my earlier answers. Having been an observer of your Lordships’ House for a long time before I had the honour of becoming a Member, I can put the point that, while it is true that there are some noble Lords who come here infrequently, they none the less make very major contributions to specific and specialised debates. In addressing the challenge put forward by the noble Lord opposite, I beg your Lordships to recognise that quantity of speech is not necessarily consonant with value or quality of contribution.

My Lords, only a matter of months ago, the Prime Minister said:

“There is one ‘first’ that is still long overdue and that is the moment when—for the first time—we finally achieve 50:50 … in our Parliament.”

The only place in which the Prime Minister has the power and opportunity to make progress towards this ambition is here in your Lordships’ House. Like other noble Lords, I hope he will show restraint but, if there are more Members to come, it is worth noting that he has so far appointed seven women and 29 men to the Conservative Benches. It is not too late to put this right. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that a new list is an opportunity to redress this balance?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point, to which every past, present and future Prime Minister should pay heed: this House is enriched by all manner of diversity. I strongly agree with what she said about the great importance of a full contribution by women in your Lordships’ House.