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House Of Lords: Appointments System

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the conclusion of the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House that recent developments “have brought the appointments system into question”.

My Lords, of course, the Government will carefully note the report. Our view is that the life peerage system works well—

There are certain beneficiaries of the life peerage system who seem to disagree.

We think that members of the House of Lords Appointments Commission do a good job and I have every confidence that new members coming in will do the same. To tweet this morning, as the noble Baroness did, about “ongoing corrupt patronage” from Prime Ministers does not help confidence in the appointments system.

I am very flattered that the noble Lord knows about my tweets. That is very nice. It is obvious that the system of prime ministerial patronage is not working. Various Prime Ministers over the past couple of years have clearly put people into your Lordships’ House who have no intention of contributing to our work and probably do not have the skills to do so anyway. This is not about the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which I admire very much. The Green Party believes that that system is archaic and corrupt. Does the Leader of the House agree with me even a tiny bit?

I very often agree with the noble Baroness, except I have never tweeted in my life, and I recommend her not to. The policy of the Green Party is to replace the system of appointment—which has given us all the excellent noble Lords here on these Benches in their parties—with a PR-democratically elected Chamber. Frankly, that would simply replace an accountable appointments system, where Prime Ministers are openly responsible for who they appoint, with an unaccountable appointments system of lists drawn up by secretive party secretariats.

My Lords, we have lots of time. Let us hear from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, then we very much look forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.

My Lords, when the last reform of the House took place between 1997 and 1999, the then Government stated clearly that, ad interim, it was the Government’s policy, agreed with the Conservative Opposition and the Leader of the Conservative Opposition in the Lords, that no party should have a disproportionate number of Peers in the Lords.

I remind Conservative Peers that on a current poll basis the Conservatives have exactly twice the poll percentage of public support that we do, so we are not overrepresented.

Particularly under Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have broken that agreement. Do the Government not accept that we are now in a position where any change of government would have to be accompanied either by the voluntary resignation of a substantial number of Conservative Peers or the appointment of a large number of new governmental Peers, which would be bad for the size of the House?

My Lords, I think the question of “disproportionate” was answered by Members of your Lordships’ House rather than me, so I will not add to the pain of those Benches. I think that there needs to be—and I have advocated this publicly in the House and privately—better representation of His Majesty’s Opposition in your Lordships’ House. I do not think it is generally acceptable that His Majesty’s Opposition should have fewer representatives in this House than the Cross Benches. I recognise that, and for all the criticism of the previous Prime Minister, Mr Johnson, he approved the appointment of Labour Peers. I hope that will go forward.

My Lords, a part of this report that I particularly enjoyed was the piece saying that

“the ending of the hereditary peer by-elections … is crucial”.

There are two more of these wretched men-only by-elections pending as they stand. I appeal to the Leader, who talks about proportionality. It is his responsibility—and he knows the constitution well enough—not just to speak for his party but as Leader of the House to speak for the whole House. The whole House is absolutely clear by an overwhelming majority, repeatedly tested in votes on this issue, that hereditary Peer by-elections should end. I ask him to go to his colleagues in the Cabinet, tell them that there is no defence of this system whatever—I challenge him to provide one—and say that a simple two-clause Bill would scrap them, which would be consistent with the wishes of nearly everyone in this Chamber.

I think the Government have other legislative priorities. The noble Lord knows how highly I esteem him. He is a bit like the elder Cato, who ended every speech in the Roman Senate by saying that Carthage must be destroyed. Unfortunately, Romans later looked back and said that when Carthage was destroyed was perhaps the beginning of the end of Rome. I am sure that, one day, the hereditary peerage will—and that has been long accepted—depart this House. Many will be sad of that. When it does, the full gaze of the public will turn on the life peerage and how that, in its turn, will stand the test of time.

My Lords, overall numbers obviously matter, but so does the number of Members of your Lordships’ House with a diversity of lived experience. The greater ethnic diversity of the recent intakes of Members to your Lordships’ House obviously strengthens us hugely in the eyes of the public, but will my noble friend The Lord Privy Seal draw No. 10’s attention to the fact that, as compared with 20% of the population who are disabled, only 1% of your Lordships’ House has long-term lived experience of disability and encourage the Prime Minister to remedy that disproportionality?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very important point. I certainly will pass on that message, as indeed others that I have referred to. I think the whole House looks with the most enormous admiration and respect at—and gains tremendously from the presence of—those who have the kind of lived experience that my noble friend refers to.

My Lords, the Leader said that the Government would take note of the report. Would he go rather further and look at it? It is cogent and carefully argued. If there is not time for legislation, there is time and opportunity for the Prime Minister to take action on issues that the public object to—not the work that this House does, but the size of the House and the method of appointment. The Prime Minister could limit the number of appointments and he could say that the Appointments Commission should look at the suitability and ability to contribute of Members who are nominated by the political parties, as it does for those who are nominated to the Cross Benches.

My Lords, on the size of the House, since January 2022 it has in fact grown by four—plus seven net Conservatives and plus three net Labour. I understand that many noble Lords are agitated about the size of the House. However, I sometimes wish that the House would concentrate on extolling the great and good things that your Lordships do every day and the challenge that your Lordships give to the Government to improve legislation, and not concentrate so much on running down the House. I am not accusing the noble Baroness of that, but the reality is that we have just had in this House one of the most contested pieces of legislation, where 417 Peers voted.

My Lords, the noble Lord will understand that this is the fifth report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee. I am sure he senses the huge exasperation that so little has changed since the first report. Those of us who value—and I concur with him on this point—the work of this House and believe that it matters are frustrated that the two most serious and justified complaints are ones that Members of this House can do absolutely nothing about. As outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the size of the House and the appointments system bring us into criticism. The work of this House, whether people agree or not with our decisions, does not receive criticism; it is often praised—it is the size of the House and the appointments system. We do not have to agree with everything in the Lord Speaker’s report to know that something has to change. There needs to be grown-up, cross-party, serious discussions on these two key issues. I am ready; are the Government?

My Lords, I wanted the noble Baroness to have time to intervene. I repeat with some humility the fact that I think we worry too much about the nominal size of the House. A House which has certain experts in it and people who come here occasionally and make a great contribution has to be larger than a full-time House. I repeat that we had 417 Peers voting on the deeply contested legislation on illegal migration on Monday. The House calls for a limit of 600 Members; we very rarely get that number voting.

As for discussions, the most important things are the role of the House, the way it conducts itself and, if I may say so, the agreements across the House within the usual channels. I am always keen to facilitate the House operating in a sensible mode. Size was not a problem in the late 1940s when the Labour Party was massively outnumbered, because there was an understanding about the way in which the House should operate. The House should concentrate on doing its role in that sort of way, and I am very happy to have those kinds of discussions. We should worry a little less about the nominal size of the House.