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House of Lords Appointments Commission

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to review the functions of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

My Lords, the House of Lords Appointments Commission recommends individuals for appointment as non-party political life Peers. It also vets nominations for life Peers, including those nominated by the UK political parties, to ensure the highest standards of propriety. The Government are grateful for the important work it does but have no plans to review its function. I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and to welcome the new chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech.

My Lords, as the Minister said, the House of Lords Commission vets candidates for life Peer positions, but it does not vet at all candidates in hereditary Peers by-elections, which the House may know that I am opposed to. Does the Minister agree that this should be a level playing field and that hereditary Peers candidates should be treated and vetted in exactly the same way as life Peers candidates?

Secondly, on the composition of the Lords, which has changed substantially in recent years, I put it to the Minister that there are now nearly 100 more Conservative Peers than Labour Peers in this House. This is by far the largest Government majority over the Official Opposition since the 1999 Act. Should not the Lords Commission publish an annual report on changes in composition during the year, so as to shed some light on the appointments process, which clearly has been abused in recent years?

First, on the question of hereditaries—a subject on which I know the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is a great expert, with his various Bills—the truth is that the hereditary arrangements involve a by-election process that was established as part of the deal on House of Lords reform in the 1990s. It would clash with the by-election process to introduce a vetting system for hereditaries—but in any event I see that as part of House of Lords reform and we have made it clear that there are no plans for piecemeal reform.

On the issue of numbers, I have more sympathy. It is true, however, that although the Conservatives now have a lot more Peers than Labour, we still do not win all our votes and we still only have 34% of Peers, partly because of the number of Cross-Bench Peers that we now have. I think the numbers are well known and well understood; of course, if the House of Lords Commission wants to publish them, that is very much up to it. But I do have some sympathy on the point in relation to numbers.

My Lords, can we hear from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire? There is plenty of time for my noble friend.

Could the Minister consider changing the status of the House of Lords Commission? There has been a range of reports from think tanks and committees in the other place which have suggested that what we need to do to these bodies, which are in effect constitutional guardians—the Committee on Standards in Public Life, ACOBA, the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests and others—is to put them in statutory form so they are able to stand up to Prime Ministers who do not wish to observe the conventions of public life, as Boris Johnson so clearly did not. Is this part of the Government’s agenda?

I do not see it that way. We are very glad we have a new chair of HOLAC, but we should be wary of giving even greater powers to bodies, however great and good, which are not necessarily democratically elected. That is why Prime Ministers and leaders of both parties put forward candidates.

My Lords, if the Government truly believe that this is a self-regulating House, which we all take great pride in, why do they not allow a free vote on the subject of a statutory appointments commission —a commission that will consider every Prime Ministerial nomination but will be able to pronounce on its totality?

As I think I have already made clear, the Government have no plans to change the status of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. It is an independent, non-departmental public body, and the Government always consider its advice very carefully. But, as I said, the Prime Minister is democratically accountable, and in our view appointments should not be determined by an unelected body.

My Lords, when I listen to the noble Baroness, I always have a smile on my face—but I do not think that is the reaction she intends me to have. When she talks about not wanting piecemeal reform, what she is really saying is that she will do absolutely nothing. This House welcomes new Members, even when they are overwhelmingly Conservative, but I want to bring her back to the numbers. After 13 years of a Labour Government, we had 24 more Peers than the Conservative Party. After 13 years of a Conservative Government there are 100 more Conservative Peers than Labour Peers.

The central point about HOLAC is that all Members of this House are treated equally, except when it comes to the vetting process. I do not in any way want to take away the Prime Minister’s authority to appoint, but I hope that he would have some respect for this House as well. Would it not be just a minor tweak to suggest that HOLAC also look at the suitability of candidates for this House, to ensure that they are willing to come here and play a full role in the work of your Lordships’ House, as everybody here does?

One further statistic is that the Conservatives won 56% of the seats at the last election and we still have only 34% of the seats in this House. As to the noble Baroness’s point about suitability, constitutionally and legally it is for the Prime Minister to make recommendations to the sovereign on new Peers. He is head of an elected Government, not a member of an arm’s-length body. Of course, he places great weight on the advice of HOLAC, but he remains of the view that it should remain focused on vetting for propriety. It is for him, and for future Prime Ministers, to think about suitability and bring the right mixture of Lords on to these Benches, so that the conduct of business, which is a mixture of public life and politics, continues well.

My Lords, speaking for myself—although I suspect many other hereditaries would agree—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on this, at least: we have nothing to fear from a HOLAC vetting process and I think it entirely appropriate that we should all go through it.

Hereditaries are subject to a good deal of questioning during the by-election process, which is laid down by the Standing Orders of the House, and we have no plans to change the vetting of hereditary Peers. Of course, they play a very important part in this House, on the Front Benches and right across it, bringing different aspects to our work in the public interest.

My Lords, this House regards itself as, and is proud to be, an expert House. Will the noble Baroness tell us how many professional scientists and doctors have been appointed to it in the last two years?

I think that will require me to write the noble Lord a letter. Obviously, this is important; the sense of his comment is that we do have a wide range of expertise. Indeed, in the modern world, as we have made clear right across the public sector, it is important to have more experts and more scientists to assist in the public interest.

My Lords, looking at these Benches, does my noble friend not think it is extraordinarily ironic for the Liberals to complain about appointments to this House, given their numbers here and the numbers they achieved at the general election?

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the situation of hereditary Peers is sexually discriminatory? Titles still go first to a son, and if there is no son they go to a collateral branch. That is in itself sexually discriminatory and I cannot see how she can possibly argue against that.

I return to the point that the hereditary element, which plays a great part in this House—we should not decry that—has a by-election process that was part of a House of Lords reform package. There will no doubt be reform in the future, and the nature of hereditary Peers may or may not be considered. We had one Private Member’s Bill last Session on this very issue, but I see it as a slightly separate point from the work of HOLAC.