Skip to main content

House of Lords Appointments Commission

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 5 January 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to put (1) the remit, and (2) the independence, of the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory footing.

My Lords, the House of Lords Appointments Commission is an independent, advisory, non-departmental public body. The Government have no plans to change the role and remit of the organisation.

Does the Minister not recognise the deep and widespread concern that has been expressed about the Prime Minister’s approach to appointments to this already overpopulated House? He has now become the first Prime Minister ever to overturn the explicit advice of the Appointments Commission in relation to the propriety of an appointment. This is not an ad hominem issue; it is an issue of real principle. Will the Minister now accept that we need to rebuild public confidence in the process of appointments to this House by creating a commission whose remit and independence is protected by statute?

No, my Lords. The Government have no plans to change the position. The organisation’s legal status would not affect its remit. The House of Lords needs refreshing and the Prime Minister, like other Prime Ministers, is entitled to do that.

My Lords, I do not normally support political conspiracy theories but the Prime Minister’s recent actions lend substance to the now widespread view that he is deliberately trying to undermine the credibility of this House and its institutions. I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in asking what will be done to restore confidence. In particular, how will the Leader of the House, who, as the Minister knows, has a special responsibility to represent the whole House, ensure that our reputation and authority are protected at the centre of government?

My Lords, I cannot answer for the Leader of the House; I answer on behalf of the Government. The Government that the noble Baroness had the honour of serving nominated 354 Members to your Lordships’ House. I think that getting too excited about my right honourable friend’s record so far is probably not appropriate.

My Lords, recent appointments show that the Government have, in effect, torn up the Burns report. Do they have a strategy for the size of the Lords, or will this Prime Minister continue to dole out peerages to his chums and financial supporters at will?

My Lords, I repeat that the House of Lords needs refreshing from time to time; that has been the position of all Governments. I completely disagree with the noble Lord’s analysis of the situation.

My Lords, as the Government have no plans to change the system for appointment to this House, can the Minister kindly clarify the principled justification—if any—for permitting the appointment of Members of the sovereign Parliament to continue to be vested in the unconstrained power of the Prime Minister of the day?

My Lords, the Prime Minister of the day is the monarch’s principal adviser on the exercise of patronage, which is part of the royal prerogative.

Does my noble friend agree that the opposition of this House to the clearly expressed view of the British people on leaving the European Union means that there is a danger that if the House of Lords Appointments Commission—drawn largely from the same pool—has statutory powers, it could lead to appointments that divorce this House even further from the population of this country?

My Lords, I would not follow my noble friend entirely in the course of his question. It is certainly true that the reputation of this House rests not on who might come here soon but on those of us who are here and how we have conducted ourselves. In that, I agree with my noble friend.

My Lords, I am not reassured by the Minister’s answers to the questions that have so far been put to him. How long will this House have to endure the disgraceful behaviour of a Prime Minister who blatantly ignores the cross-party agreement to keep the size of this House from growing year on year and who ignored both the Court of Appeal’s judgment on Mr Cruddas’s behaviour—it described it as “unacceptable, inappropriate and wrong” —and the independent advice of the Appointments Commission that this man is not a suitable candidate for a peerage?

My Lords, I am certainly not following the noble Baroness into what was described earlier as an ad hominem comment on any individual. On the Burns report numbers, which I think she refers to, neither this Prime Minister nor the previous one assented to any limit on numbers.

Can my noble friend tell the House whether there have been any discussions with the chairman and members of the House of Lords Appointments Commission since the Prime Minister’s latest decision? Does he accept that, as it appears that persons can effectively buy a position in this House—at least, that is the impression given—that brings us back to the days of the rotten boroughs? Does he not realise that all of us suffer, and the reputation of the House suffers, as a consequence?

My Lords, I do not agree with my noble friend. The question of the resourcing of political parties is a vexed one, as noble Lords know, and has affected all political parties. I cannot comment on contact between the Prime Minister and HOLAC but I can say that the chairman of HOLAC has written to the Public Accounts Committee on the matter—that is on the record—and the Prime Minister, with full transparency, has placed his own letter on the public record.

My Lords, having long supported a statutory Appointments Commission, I accept that it may be difficult to define criteria such as propriety in precise legal terms. Certain financial transactions, for example, while reprehensible, may be entirely legal. So would the Minister agree that extending the remit of the independent commission to include a thorough assessment of the competence and/or appropriateness of a political nominee would be helpful to regain public confidence?

My Lords, again, I do not accept the charge of a lack of public confidence in this relation. The role of the House of Lords Appointments Commission is unchanged; it makes observations and gives advice. The commission’s role is advisory, and the Prime Minister has said that he places great weight on its careful and considered advice and will continue to do so.

Is it not right that the Prime Minister should have the ultimate say? He should of course consult the commission, which he has done, and he has come to a different view. That is wholly proper, and I very much welcome the Minister’s declared intention not to change the system as presently constructed, which has served Prime Ministers of all parties, since its formation.

I am grateful for my noble friend’s comments. There is a certain imbalance in some of the response to the Prime Minister’s appointments. My position is to welcome all those coming to your Lordships’ House, including the person who has been unfairly attacked today.

My Lords, I listened carefully to the Minister’s answers and I do not think he has addressed the Question first put to him by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who was the first Lord Speaker of this House, or that of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, a former Leader of the House. They asked what he is going to do to restore public confidence. While the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, is right that the role of the commission has not changed, the attitude of the Prime Minister to its recommendations has changed. In three key areas—the size of the House and the Burns committee report, by-elections of hereditary Peers, and now the integrity of the appointments system—the Government are lagging behind the House of Lords. I take the Minister back to the original Question: what do he and the Government intend to do to restore and improve the reputation of the House, which has been damaged by ongoing appointments and an increase in size?

My Lords, I disagree that appointments are damaging the reputation of the House, as keeps being put. I am grateful that all noble Lords are, as I am, jealous of the reputation of the House, but if quantity of appointments were the issue, it would have been badly damaged under a previous Administration. The noble Baroness referred also to appointments of hereditary Peers. If we are talking of statutory matters, I suggest that the House of Lords looks at the statute on this matter.

Thank you, Lord Speaker. I declare my interest as a former chairman of HOLAC. Its advice was accepted by all Prime Ministers, from Tony Blair to Theresa May. If its advice is discarded, the system pretty quickly falls into disrepute. Does the Minister agree that the Appointments Commission should be seen as a creature of this House and that its chairman and members should be chosen by this House?

My Lords, many will reflect on the matter that the noble Lord raises, but I think it is dangerous for this House to assert the right to decide who should or should not be its own Members. That is a constitutionally strange place for an unelected House to go. I repeat that the Prime Minister said in his published letter that he gave very careful consideration to the points raised in the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Commission in the case referred to today, and weighed them against other factors. The Prime Minister will always give close attention to the commission’s careful and considered advice.

My Lords, it has been asserted that public confidence in your Lordships’ House has been lost because of the number of Members, but does my noble friend agree that there is no evidence for that and that therefore there is no need to change any of our arrangements, which work extremely well on an advisory basis, for the appointment of Peers to this House?

Yes, I agree with my noble friend. I believe that the reputation of the House is weighed on many factors other than this. The behaviour of Members, including those recommended by the House of Lords Appointments Commission to sit on the Cross Benches, is one of the factors that the people who watch this House consider.

My Lords, while I welcome the Government’s approach to this and my noble friend’s answers today, does he agree with me that placing the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory footing might avoid the current disproportionate allocation of membership to your Lordships’ House, with the potential to allow a quicker, more efficient programme of work to be achieved?

My Lords, a large number of considerations were wrapped up in that beguiling question. There is an argument that, as this House is not elected, its reputation rests on its expertise and that therefore a considerable number of Members might be desirable, as they bring their expertise here. I simply rest on the point that we should not be carried away by, sadly, a political attack on a particular individual. All noble Lords should be prepared to welcome all our new colleagues, when they come to your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, all supplementary questions have now been asked. I apologise for seeking to bring proceedings to a close a little prematurely.

Sitting suspended.