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House of Lords: Appointments

Volume 824: debated on Monday 17 October 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, in light of Friday’s announcement of the appointment of 26 new Peers, whether they plan to review the appointments system for Members of the House of Lords.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to change the status of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which should continue to play its very important advisory role. Appointments to the House of Lords are a matter for the Prime Minister, and it is for the Prime Minister of the day to advise the sovereign on appointments to the Lords. The list issued on Friday was made by the Prime Minister on the advice of the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

My Lords, that is a disappointing reply. Does the Minister remember that the all-party committee which I set up when I was Lord Speaker in 2016, under the noble Lord, Lord Burns, proposed a maximum for the House of Lords of 600 Members? The latest list brings the total not to 600 but to 825, with resignation honours still to come. Also, on this occasion, the system has enabled the appointment of a new Peer who had quite falsely attacked a distinguished Member of this House as a paedophile. Surely there is no reason why an individual who made such an untrue allegation should be rewarded by a peerage. Is not the truth that the present appointments system cries out for urgent reform?

I start by making the general point that, given retirements and other departures, some new Members are essential to keep the expertise and outlook of the House of Lords fresh. The Burns report had longer-term proposals to maintain a steady-state size. Those still require further thought and engagement, particularly with the House of Commons, given the constitutional implications. Theresa May’s Administration in 2018 did not sign up to the Burns recommendations, but there is a Conservative manifesto commitment to look at the role of the Lords.

On the other point that my noble friend Lord Fowler raised—if I may still call him my noble friend—the nomination for the appointment of the individual he referred to is a matter for the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, to answer for. Obviously the HOLAC provides advice on nominations for all life Peers, including those recommended by UK political parties, to ensure the highest standards of propriety. That was applied in the usual way.

My Lords, listening to the Minister, we accept that the appointment of new Members is important to refresh skills, talents and expertise as others depart from your Lordships’ House. However, the Burns report, as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, showed a road map towards a smaller and therefore more effective Chamber.

Let us look at the facts over the last few years. David Cameron appointed more Peers per year than any other Prime Minister ever, with a far greater proportion to the government parties. Boris Johnson then made him look like an amateur. There have been so many resignations from the Government Front Bench in the last two years that, even with the higher number of Conservative appointments, we have had an extra 10 appointments on the Conservative Benches purely to fill ministerial posts following resignations.

Your Lordships’ House has regularly expressed its concern and its support for the Burns report. This must be the first time ever that the House of Lords has called for reform and it is the Government who are blocking it. With the talk of another list about to be sent our way, courtesy of the former Prime Minister’s resignation list—I do not know if there will be any further ones—is it not time to stop, pause and have a genuine discussion about a sensible way forward?

On the last point, it is a long-standing convention that individuals can be nominated for an honour in recognition of their public or political service and Prime Ministers can draw up resignation lists after leaving office. This has been the case under past Governments across the political spectrum. I point out regarding the numbers that, after a long period of Labour government, there were very substantial numbers of Labour Peers. The Conservative voice in this House is still underrepresented and has been for some time.

We try our best to represent this side of the House—politely—but the Conservative Party has been the largest party in the 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 parliamentary general elections. In the 2019 general election, the Conservatives won 56% of seats, yet, as of August 2022, the Conservative Party still had only 33% of the seats in the Lords. There were 249 Conservatives out of 757 Peers. Noble Lords opposite may not like these numbers, but they are a reality, and they need to understand the position.

My Lords, this House rightfully dislikes personal attacks. However, on the question of Tom Watson, I say that he did not just attack a Member of this House under parliamentary privilege; he also destroyed the lives of Harvey Proctor, who lost his house and his job, Lord Bramall, who died under suspicion of a completely false charge, and Lord Brittan, who I saw in his dying days and who was deeply depressed by these completely false accusations against him. While this nomination was from the leader of the Opposition, very surprisingly, I regret that it was not vetoed by the Prime Minister. This appointment is a stain on the House and an absolute disgrace.

I thank my noble friend for drawing those points to the attention of the House. In respect of today’s Question, I say that the commission’s role was to provide advice, and this was duly provided in the usual way. However, we have heard what my noble friend had to say.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my previous role as a past chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. It is the responsibility of the individual party leaders to assess the suitability of their individual nominations to serve in your Lordships’ House. Does the Minister believe that the adoption of common criteria to make that assessment of suitability might achieve a greater degree of consistency and confidence in those nominations?

My Lords, as I said, the commission is an independent advisory committee, and the Government consider its advice carefully in whatever form it is given. The Prime Minister is democratically accountable and must have the final say on appointments. Of course, we are all due to debate my noble friend Lord Norton’s Private Member’s Bill, and while the Government have reservations about it, we welcome that opportunity.

My Lords, my recollection of the negotiations between 1997 and 1999 is that there was a general agreement that there should not be a majority for any group in this House and that this House should have a different composition from the House of Commons. I understood the Minister to be arguing that this House should have the same composition as the House of Commons. In the not unlikely event that a different Government appear after the next election, how does the Minister suggest her preference for how a majority for the new Government should be achieved? Should there be a voluntary retirement of, say, 60 or 70 Conservatives, or should there be the appointment of enough additional Members to give the new Government their majority, resulting in a steady increase in the number within the House?

I explained the situation about the 33% share that troubled us on this side of the House. The noble Lord’s other question is highly speculative. In addition, one can look back at the past as to what changes must be made when Governments change; I have already referred to that. We must now make sure that we are refreshing the House with new people right across the House. There are opposition and government Peers on the list; I welcome that and look forward to working with the new Peers.

The Minister should have had rather more statistics at her disposal when she was briefed for this Question, particularly on the balance between government and opposition Peers. I remind her that, in the 13 years of Labour Government, the biggest gap was that the Labour Government had 26 more Peers than the official Conservative Opposition. I will not go through the list of years, but I can certainly tell her that the Tories had more Peers than the Labour Party during most of the years of the last Labour Government. The current gap between this Government and the Opposition is that there are 83 more government Members than there are opposition Members. The Government still manage to lose a lot of votes, by the way, but that is not down to numbers. It is high time that the Appointments Commission saw, as part of its remit, the need to examine the effect of each list as it comes along on the balance of party strength in the House of Lords, because this Government, under successive Prime Ministers, have been abusing the appointments system.

My Lords, I always enjoy the lessons in history from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, but I am a simple person and the simple fact is that former Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed 374 Peers to this House. That is reflected in many of the people on the Benches opposite who contribute to debates in this House.

My Lords, in December I shall complete five years on the House of Lords Appointments Commission, so I have dealt with some of the cases that have been raised today. I have to say to the House that we have struggled with some cases because our remit, as the House will be aware, has been to look only at propriety and not at suitability. My noble friend will be aware of the letter sent by our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, to the leaders of both the Conservative Party and Labour Party only last week, suggesting that our remit should now include a test as to whether the candidate meets the seven Nolan principles. That would give us much more ability to make the most suitable of choices. Technically, every year we are allowed to appoint two Cross-Benchers, although we do not always meet those criteria, through no fault of our own. In recent years, when I have been involved in the selection of two Cross-Benchers, the standard and diligence with which we select people is much higher than for those coming forward on a prime ministerial list.

Obviously, I thank my noble friend for her service on the commission, which is very important. I remember that, before the commission was set up, a lot of questions were rightly asked if you had the honour of having a peerage conferred on you—in my case, by Her late Majesty the Queen. I repeat the point that individuals are nominated in recognition of their contribution to society and their public and political service. Peers are appointed to contribute further to public service, for example, and in this House it is right to have a variety of people coming forward. That helps us right across the House. I often have a number of battles with my good and noble friend Lady Jones in the Green Party—she and I joined on the same day—and I look forward to continuing to have a very diverse House.

My Lords, the Minister did not address the point put so powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning. The Minister said earlier that all appointments went to the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which is absolutely correct, but the degree of scrutiny that the commission can give to nominees is grossly different between political recommendations and appointments to the Cross Benches. Does not she accept that not being able to scrutinise recommendations on whether the people recommended are, first, suitable and, secondly, committed to playing a part in the work of your Lordships’ House is one of the main obstacles to any sort of public trust in the system that we have at the moment?

It is a very good thing that we have the Appointments Commission. It is an independent advisory committee, which has been set up and does its job. As I said at the beginning of this small debate, I do not think that the time has come to change that arrangement. The Prime Minister is democratically accountable for appointments, and they should not be determined by an unelected body to a greater extent than they are.