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Peerages: Letters Patent

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 17 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what precedent exists for peerages to be recommended by the Prime Minister but with a request for the Monarch not to issue Letters Patent until an unspecified date in the future.

The Government are aware that there is some precedent for individuals deferring taking up their seats in the House of Lords—for example, by agreeing a delay in the issue of Letters Patent. However, that is limited and largely reflective of personal circumstances. As the noble Lord will know, advice between the Prime Minister and the sovereign is confidential.

My Lords, perversely, the topical Question granted for yesterday helps us to clarify the Government’s position, not least on the difference between an MSP and a Member of the House of Commons, and the constitutional position and implications, not least for the monarch. Let me ask a very simple question: will the Government support tomorrow the Private Member’s Bill, which will be proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, to strengthen the House of Lords Appointments Commission?

I very much sympathise with the noble Lord, in that his Question is being answered today rather than yesterday, and I very much look forward to participating in the debate tomorrow on the Private Member’s Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. The Government have no plans to change the status of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. It is an independent non-departmental public body, as noble Lords will know, and the Prime Minister is democratically accountable. As I said yesterday, we do not believe that appointments should be determined by an unelected body—but, of course, we will be listening and participating in the debate secured by the noble Lord, Lord Norton.

My Lords, the Minister yesterday asserted the principle that the Government are entitled to have a similar majority in the Lords to the Commons, but that is not a principle that was understood in the last partial reform of the Lords in 1999. Indeed, the then Labour Government survived with fewer Peers in the Lords than the Conservatives for many years afterwards, and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, as Leader of the Conservative Opposition, carried a great many votes against the then Government.

Could the Minister take us a little further on that principle? Does she assume that, in the event of a change of Government, it would be appropriate for the Conservatives to retire enough Peers to enable the new Government to gain an alternative majority, or does she think that the House will then have to go towards 1,000 Peers?

As I said yesterday, I am not willing to speculate on what might or might not happen after a future general election. However, I repeat that the Conservative Party, despite winning a succession of elections, has still only 34% of the seats in the House of Lords. It is interesting that 408 Members were appointed over the 13 years from 2010, and 404 Members have been appointed over the 12 years between 2011 and 2022.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister confirm that, when the Prime Minister of the day is considering honours, one of his responsibilities is to maintain the integrity of the honours system?

My Lords, the late noble and learned Lord Mayhew and I, as ex-Attorney-Generals, gave evidence to this House’s Constitution Committee that the Government could not rely on the royal prerogative to go to war as it was outdated, and the committee agreed. The committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, did not make any suggestions on how to stop a Prime Minister proposing increases in membership of this House. Will the Government consider referring to the Constitution Committee the use of the royal prerogative to recommend peerages, as its unlimited use is similarly outdated?

I do not see it quite that way. We have retirements and departures, and we support the continuation of encouraging more retirements. I think that the Liberal Democrats in particular have not as many retirements as some other parties. As we have said, we look more broadly at the role of the Lords, but it is an important point that significant measures—which I think could stem from the noble and learned Lord’s question—on the size and composition of the House of Lords are a matter for the democratically elected Government. Of course, the House and committees have a role in offering advice, but significant changes have to be for the Government of the day.

If the Minister is unable to answer this question, could she at least reflect on it? Should a peerage be allocated to somebody who is a sitting MP and they subsequently blot their copybook, will the Government rescind their peerage, or ask the monarch to do so? Have we also completely now abandoned the process of two out, one in?

On the point of sitting MPs, as I said yesterday, the sort of reports that have led to this debate are rumour and speculation. However, we will of course reflect on the debates we have and have had here—yesterday, today and tomorrow.

I would like the Minister to remind me when it was that Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned. When was it? Then, we know that the speculation that has been talked about is about a resignation list, not an honours list and not nominations—we had nominations recently. That is the speculation. She keeps saying that the Prime Minister takes responsibility. Will Prime Minister Sunak admit responsibility for this list, and will he stop and make sure that he does not put His Majesty in this invidious position, because it will bring disgrace on the Government and disgrace on His Majesty?

It is a convention that has been observed by successive Governments that a resignation honours list can be put forward by a departing Prime Minister. It can take a bit of time: I think that Theresa May and John Major took a few months to put their resignation lists together. They are then forwarded to the Prime Minister of the day. The practice now is that the House of Lords Appointments Commission looks at proposals and makes recommendations, which are taken into account by the Prime Minister in the confidential advice that he offers the sovereign.

My Lords, I am sure that before tomorrow’s debate the Minister will study the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I think she will see that it does not propose that the Appointments Commission should determine membership of this House but that that responsibility should remain with the Prime Minister.

I am so grateful to my former boss for that excellent point of clarification. I shall listen very carefully throughout the Norton debate, and bear in mind the need to look at the detail and be very careful.

May I suggest that the Minister visit the Members’ Cloakroom downstairs, where she will see eight red boxes containing seals that have not been collected by a number of Peers, including the noble Lord, Lord Lebedev? Would one way of achieving the excellent proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for reducing the size of this House be to find a way to get rid of the Peers who fail to turn up regularly without reasonable excuse?

I cannot agree with that. Like others, the noble Lord, Lord Lebedev, was nominated on his contributions to society and that included his understanding, obviously, of Russia; but also, he has been extremely critical of the murderous Putin regime. He—

Let me finish. He, like other Members who turn up less than the rest of us, brings a difference perspective. I was present for his maiden speech. The point about the House of Lords is that it is a part-time House and some people bring other aspects and contributions which are not on the Floor of the House.

In answering the Question yesterday and today, the Minister mentioned that when, in the past, Members of the House of Commons have been nominated for a peerage, it has in a very few cases been postponed “for particular reasons”, I think her phrase was. Who determines the particular reasons? Would it be a Minister of the Crown, in which case it would be subject to judicial review, would it not?

I think I was trying to make the point that it is down to the particular circumstances of the individual. In the cases in question—I think there were three or four, and I will not go into them—the particular circumstances and needs of those involved, for example, being a Member of the Scottish Parliament, meant that a deferment was possible and appropriate.