Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the resolution of the House on 31 October 1917 which required that any recommendation for a new peerage sent to the Crown be accompanied by a statement of the reasons for the recommendation, what plans they have to ensure that (1) any person nominated for a peerage has been approved as a proper person by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, or any other appropriate vetting committee, and (2) the assessment of the Commission accompanies the recommendation to the Crown for the grant of the peerage.
My Lords, I am pleased to introduce this short debate. It is a bit of a raffle, is it not? You put in your subject and about four out of 20 get drawn, so I am probably lucky to be drawn.
This comes out of my long-term interest in history, particularly the history of the way Britain has developed. When I first got here, some nine years ago, I was quite fascinated to be told that we were a self-governing House. I think I have discovered over the last nine years that our definition of “self-governing House” is something like that of a self-governing colony. We have no rights other than the right the governor-general wishes to accord to us, and she does not seem to want us to do very much at all.
When I was looking back in the history books, quite by accident I chanced on a debate from 1917, which quite clearly demonstrates that this House has the right to ask the Government to do something. People have said that we cannot ask the Government and can only petition or request, but we can take a decision. That is why the rather obscure reference to 1917 is at the beginning of this Question.
The second thing is that my studies of history have led me to somewhat different conclusions from many people’s about certain aspects of British history. One of them is that George V is probably the most underrated monarch of the last 200 years. He did a huge amount to bring Britain from Victorian England, which was really his father, to an England of George VI, which was his son. His almost 26 turbulent years transformed Britain. Together with probably our greatest Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, he not only probably saved Britain from revolution but put it on the path it is on today as a constitutional democracy.
We are quite unique in that we survived many buffetings without going down very extreme paths. If you look at the resolution of 1917, and one before it from 1914, you find at the base of it a general perception that the House of Lords was in need of some reform and that the Lords had got out of touch with the people. I think that is the case today.
The Earl of Selborne said in 1917 that the way in which the Lords behaved was
“doing grave damage to the prestige of the Crown”.
I do not think that recent events around honours and peerages have done any good for the Crown—let us put it that way. In the same debate, the Marquess of Lansdowne said that in passing the resolution we were going
“a long way towards allaying suspicion, which may be exaggerated, but which is certainly widespread and very deep-seated.” —[Official Report, 31/10/1917; cols. 847-60.]
There is a widespread and deep-seated perception today that there is a class of people in this country to whom the normal rules do not apply, and I am afraid that one of those people is not far from the head of this particular Administration we have. In short, we are in a situation where respect for the Government is far lower than it needs to be. Many people look at what is happening and say, “It’s okay for them; they live in a different world from us”.
What I am trying to do with this resolution is one little part of the procedure—the nominations of peerages: to ask that, when they are sent to the Crown, they be accompanied by the findings of whatever commission looks into peerages. If that commission rejects the peerage and the Prime Minister still wants to send it, he or she should be obliged to include with that the recommendation of the House of Lords commission that has been appointed to do this job. They should not just be able to sweep it under the carpet and say, “Oh well, I’ve looked at that and don’t agree—sorry”. All I am asking is that a document that would already exist, because the commission would have drawn it up, is forwarded to the Crown. I also suggest that that document be laid before each House. It is surprising to me that a parliamentary system that constantly talks of the need for openness does not even lay before its own House the qualifications that its own committee has approved for membership of it. This is not acceptable.
We need to do all that. It would also open up further areas where we need to look at reform. However, that is deliberately not part of this Question. I would be surprised if, when people start looking at the House of Lords, they do not start asking some questions about the business and other interests of some of its Members.
As many noble Lords know, I was sent to this House by David Cameron because he said that he wanted someone to speak for trade unions from the Conservative Benches. There was not a very long list of competitors for me to defeat but I have done what I said I would. Normally, if there is anything to do with the TUs, I pop up. I meet the TUC; I do not always agree with it but, during my time here, I have attempted to remind people that 30% of all trade unionists vote for the Conservative Party and they deserve to be listened to by our party—that is a jolly good thing. I say that, but of course the other thing David Cameron said was, “I want you to be a regular attender and voter in the House.” Then he stopped, and there was a gap before he said, “Preferably voting on our side.”
This House has to be relevant. Frankly, we have to open up the process, particularly on the question of what someone can contribute to the House of Lords. That question should be asked whether people are political nominations or Cross-Bench nominations. There are too many people in this House—this is not aimed at anyone; I am not naming any names—who, in a great flurry, become Lord or Lady So-and-so but you then have to ask the attendants, “Have you got a picture of them because I have never seen them?” This is not acceptable. This must be a working House, and one where most of the people are here most of the time.
When people ask me what my job is, they say, “Oh, you’ve retired.” I say, “No, no, I’m still working away.” They ask what I do, and I say that I work in the House of Lords. I do not say that I am a Member, which I obviously am—I say that I work here, because I do work here. This is where I come to and intervene and, I hope, do a small amount of good for the country.
I believe that this modest proposal to open up at the margin and shed some daylight on the system would be good for the Crown, which is not looking too good itself in the light of recent stories about nominations, and good for this House.
I close by quoting my dear grandmother—the wisest woman I ever knew—who once, when talking about somebody being given a knighthood, and getting it improperly, said, “Well, I don’t know why he did it, because you can’t eat it, can you, lad?”
My Lords, I am very happy to speak in Comrade Balfe’s debate. Now that I know his true provenance, I feel that he has hidden virtues I was unaware of.
I rise to speak wondering why there is a debate about this at all. It seems so self-evident that people who have undergone due process should have what has happened presented transparently in a proper form to the Crown, and if there is a divergence then the alternative case should be put. I cannot really see that anybody could take a position other than being in favour of all that.
I am, of course, completely new to the world of politics. The wiles and Machiavellian goings-on that I have vaguely become aware of over the years will, I am sure, fit me for that final deliberation at the pearly gates, when I wonder whether or not I am going to get in. Granted that I have, relatively speaking, a naivety on these things, I cannot understand how we are where we are. In 2004, when I was admitted to your Lordships’ House, Tony Blair’s Government had a very considerable majority in the Commons. When I came into the House of Lords there were, roughly speaking, 200 Labour Lords and 200 Conservative Lords. I rejoiced at the fact that someone from my background could come into a debating Chamber where cases had to be won, majorities had to be put together and arguments had to be presented that won the approval of those assembled. No Government, simply because it had even a whacking majority, as the Labour Party did then, could simply assume that it would carry the day all the time in the Lords.
Then, of course, we became aware that things were going on that got into the newspapers. We put together a committee, headed by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. Its task was to try to introduce some order as it was sought to bring the numbers in the House of Lords roughly into equivalence with the House of Commons. The formula was simple; it was debated on the Floor of the House and it was agreed, and I thought that we had something that would sort out some of the excesses and wrongdoings of the Chamber as it was.
All these years later, when we look at the figures, we find that there is no longer a rough equivalence between Labour and the Conservatives, but that the Labour Party has, in fact, followed the advice of the Burns committee —one in for two out—that the Liberal Democrats have done the same, but that the Conservatives simply have not. It is not only that: they have grossly inflated the numbers coming in so that instead of a rough equivalence, we now see that there are 258 Peers the Conservatives might expect to count on for their support and 168 Labour Members. I cannot understand how something that was put together out of the deliberations of the House of Lords and which got approval from all sides of the House should end up with us being in a position—self-regulating as we are supposed to be—that leads to an imbalance of this kind.
I know that in our party meetings we can talk about our record in this respect but I must say to Conservative Members, and those taking part in this debate in particular: please tell us that you are as anxious as the rest of us that the things we have agreed in this way are not followed through on. In one case, someone who was rejected by the commission had that rejection overruled by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is under fire for a lot of things at the moment; he should be under the same kind of fire for the way in which this situation has come to pass.
I am new to politics. I hope to find probity and integrity but something like this puts me on the side of the tabloid press, which thinks that we are all a lot of funny people.
My Lords, one of the glories of this House is the wide range and diversity of its Members. If you wished to divide them up into categories, you would find that difficult. There are all sorts of opinions and views, and hurrah for that.
I recall, when I was on the Opposition Front Bench, going through Bills, and however late in the evening it was there would always be a number of Back-Bench Peers on all sides of the House. They had huge knowledge of the matters being discussed and were articulate in expressing their views. They made huge contributions to debates. Frankly, they made my own attempts to call the Government to account as a Front-Bench spokesman seem rather puny. I mention this because a number of those doing such sterling work would have been extremely unlikely to have passed the rigours of a vetting committee. Almost by definition, they had become such experts in their own fields that, on occasions, they might have appeared slightly odd when not discussing their own subject.
In a recent letter to the Times, Paul Dacre, that most eminent and distinguished newspaper editor said—oh, I have lost it.
Well, I think he did. He said—the noble Lord will enjoy this:
“To anyone from the private sector, who, God forbid, has convictions, and is thinking of applying for a public appointment, I say the following: the civil service will control (and leak) everything; the process could take a year in which your life will be put on hold; and if you are possessed of an independent mind and are unassociated with the liberal-left, you will have more chance of winning the lottery than getting the job.”
I do not think for a moment that the committee suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, to give approval to anyone nominated for a peerage, would be in the least bit biased or show anything but the most even-handed and scrupulous attitude, and nor would they be likely to take a year. However, members of committees change and the new members may not always show such admirable impartiality.
Even if that was the case, it is inevitable that, as time goes by, the views of committees are reflected in those selected. This House could end up losing its independent thinkers and eccentrics, and those prepared to challenge the fashionable groupthink of the day. As things stand, there may be appointments that raise eyebrows. But rather that and retain the individuality of the Members of this House, and their willingness to call the Government to account, than the dreary sameness which would result over time from these proposals.
My Lords, I welcome the invitation to wash our dirty ermine in public that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, has presented to us. We had a Bill a while ago on the status of the Appointments Commission and why it should be made statutory and so on—I think it was a Private Member’s Bill. I said at that time that one difficulty is that we have no legitimacy; our legitimacy comes from the fact that the Crown nominates us, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
The Appointments Commission is neither here nor there. It is not statutory; it is there as a respectable front, but it does not matter. What matters is what the Prime Minister recommends to the Crown. That is the only basis of our legitimacy. We are almost like a colony. We have more like dominion status—a little bit further—but we are not self-governing. We may be in our internal affairs, but our appointments are entirely determined outside the House of Lords. That has to be absolutely clear.
Even if we followed the proposition that the noble Lord has assiduously found from reading the history books, it would not be acceptable, nor would it have any constitutional position. His example was of the commission making various recommendations which were completely ignored by the Prime Minister—whoever the Prime Minister, it has been ignored.
In a sense, our problem lies not within us but outside us. The problem of reforming this House is very simple. If the House was reformed, the House of Commons would lose its primacy. The day the House of Lords becomes legitimate would be the death of the primacy of the House of Commons, so the House of Commons has an immense interest in not having us reformed. It is very important for the House of Commons that we be thought of as figures of fun, as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, said.
Whenever the Daily Mail writes about us, it always uses a picture from when Her Majesty comes to open Parliament, because then we are in our ermine. It says, “These are people prancing around in ermines, they do not do any work, they are called Lords, they get lots of money—millions of pounds—and isn’t it ridiculous?”. I am trying to write a book to tell people what we actually do in our daily work, so they realise that we do not just come on one day of the year.
Our difficulties are deeply structural. They are in the constitution of the United Kingdom, and there is no way that the constitution can be amended. It is in the nature of the constitution that the House of Commons derives its power from the fact that, of all the second Chambers in the world, we are the weakest. We are very good at advising, we have a lot of expertise—go and listen to the health and social care debate, where there is fantastic expertise—but we have no legitimacy.
There is not much we can do about that, so I recommend that we adjust our expectations. I would like our names to be changed from Lords to something else, but that will not happen. On a historical note, what has happened is much more than what happened under George V, who was very much praised. The substantial reform of this House has been under the rule of our present monarch. Life Peers were added, women were able to come and we have a sort of Appointments Commission. We are slightly more in touch with the public, and we have had the House of Lords reform undertaken by the Labour Party in Tony Blair’s first Administration.
Nothing more is possible—nor can I speak any more, so I will sit down.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai, much as I disagree with a number of the points that he made. We do not have much time, so let me begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Balfe on obtaining this debate and the manner of his introduction. I endorse entirely what he said about George V. In doing that, I commend to your Lordships the recently published biography of George V by Jane Ridley, which is an extremely well-written, well-documented life and completely underlines the points made by my noble friend Lord Balfe.
I must declare an interest in that I am one of the joint founders and the chairman of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. I set it up in 2000, when I was in the Commons and with 10 years in that House still in front of me, with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, who is a great constitutional expert. We were concerned about the way in which reform appeared to be going, because we believed very much in an appointed, non-elected House chosen for its varied expertise and not too party political because of the presence of Cross-Benchers making up around 25% of it. We thought that this was something worth preserving, not least because if we had an elected second Chamber there would inevitably be the constant threat of deadlock between the two Houses.
We have had a reasonably successful run over the last 20 years. Out of our deliberations came the Steel Bill, which allowed for retirements, and the Hayman Bill, which allowed for a rather more serious and sad thing: expulsions, if necessary. I am glad that it has not been needed up to now. We were also very much behind the former Lord Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, setting up the Burns committee. We endorsed its recommendations, as did your Lordships’ House—particularly on numbers. We should not be bigger than the House of Commons, which has 650 Members.
Of course, in effect we are not. Look at the voting figures for this week. Most Divisions had fewer than 400 people vote in them. If we look at those who are active in your Lordships’ House—of whom the noble Lord, Lord Desai, is notably one—we find that there are many who say nothing and just vote. Here we are in the midst of the largest international crisis since the Second World War, and the one Russian-born Peer, ennobled just a few months ago, has not sought to utter a word or make an appearance. This is not a personal attack on the integrity of the noble Lord, Lord Lebedev; rather, it is a regret that he has not used his unique position to come here and talk to his colleagues. He made a maiden speech, but he did not make it here. I am told that he made it on his yacht; I do not know whether that is true, but it was certainly not made in your Lordships’ House. It was remote.
It is important that those who are ennobled come here and play a proper part. A number of the recent appointments by Prime Minister Boris Johnson have barely made an appearance or a contribution. Of course, we have an Appointments Commission. It is not statutory, as the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber has always urged. It is okay that the Prime Minister nominates —that is fine—but the Appointments Commission’s word should be final. If it does not endorse a recommendation, that recommendation should be dropped gently and not with great publicity. We need to get to a House of no more than 650 Peers, and they should be working Peers. That does not mean they should be here every hour of every day; it means they should come at least 20% to 25% of the time, make a contribution and take a real interest in their vocation to public service.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for tabling this Question for Short Debate, as it raises some interesting challenges and thorny dilemmas for all of us, eliciting a range of interesting contributions so far. In its own terms, I rather like the intention of making justifications for appointed peerages more transparent, with all that information published in the public realm. As a believer in sunlight being the best disinfectant, I believe that the more the public can see all the aspects of the inner workings of Parliament the better. However, I will raise several caveats about whether this would really lead to greater public trust in this House.
As someone whose appointment here was relatively recent and, to say the least, contentious and elicited widespread media comment and speculation—although I note that conspiratorial misinformation is not just a preserve of trolls on social media but alive and well in the mainstream—I have every interest in a more open system. But as an outsider before I entered this place, I always thought that the opaque way people were offered peerages inevitably fuelled suspicion. It was always far clearer to me why hereditary Peers were here than appointed Peers.
The truth is that none of us is here legitimately in terms of democracy. I appreciate that the main public concern is often the notion of cash for honours. Buying oneself into the legislature is obviously unconscionable, but even this accusation can be a lazy trope in our cynical times. For example, as we speak, plenty of people are saying that my peerage and those of several other recent non-party appointments were paid for by dirty Russian money—because, you know, Brexit was a Putin plot, et cetera. This conspiracy theory nonsense is confined not just to the crackpot fringes but given respectable support by mainstream commentators. I am equally wary of concluding that if someone happens to be wealthy or Russian and ends up in this House they are inevitably dodgy.
In general, I am suspicious when the corruption of democracy is confined narrowly to “follow the money” critiques. Is it any less distorting of the legitimacy of the legislature that many Peers here lost their seats because the electorate rejected them in elections, yet here they are, still making laws?
Will the proposed solutions help clear up this mess? I am certainly not keen on endorsing statutory appointments commissions with enhanced vetting powers. This sounds more like a dystopian bureaucratic HR department. Who would sit on such a commission: unelected Peers or civil servants? I do not see how that is more legitimate than any Prime Minister, who at least notionally is accountable to Parliament and the voters.
I note that one proposal is about establishing a new criteria for individuals to meet: a “copious merit” test—I am definitely sure that I would not pass that. Who decides what is meritorious? Is it a moral purity test? Would it be expertise? In which case, are we advocating a Chamber of philosopher kings, removing even further decision-making from the plebs?
All these proposals skirt round the main problem: that this House stands on shaky, undemocratic foundations, as we cannot be held to account, removed or sacked by the voters. Any appointments system will always be flawed or open to cronyism or patronage accusations when it is removed from the most important scrutineers—the demos. The very basis of any legitimate parliamentarian claim to wield the power of lawmaking should be the electorate, yet the House of Lords stands above it. Until that is resolved, I am afraid every other proposal might end up as PR and spin.
My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in the gap. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for bringing this interesting Question before us from 1917, although I do not commend the Question itself because it seems to draw the monarch into vetoing, or not, a proposal put to her.
Unfinished business from 1917 is one thing, but we have unfinished business from 2017 and the Burns report, as the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths and Lord Cormack, pointed out. Despite being a believer in more fundamental reform of the House, I happily took part in the Burns committee to try to find a way forward without legislative change, which we all thought was unlikely. That way forward commanded wide support in the House. It was a scheme for new appointments and retirements that depended on trust between the parties and the Cross-Bench group, and an understanding that each would comply with the broad principles. They would provide the retirements to make the numbers right, except in cases where deaths had taken place, and, in the case of the Government, not put the numbers up in defiance of the principles behind the report.
I am afraid that that trust has not remained. We are in a situation whereby, unlike the previous Prime Minister, Mrs May, the present one does not recognise any need for restraint of that kind. That is changing the whole situation and making the Burns proposals non-operative.
I should add that we also had views about the role of the Appointments Commission in making people realise what was involved in becoming a Member of the House of Lords, and asking them questions as to whether they understood what would be required of them—but of course without any power of veto.
If we stay as we are, the Executive get the best of both worlds. They can put unlimited numbers of people into the House of Lords and then discount the opinions expressed by that House on the grounds that it is an appointed House. How does that serve our democracy? We need an effective second Chamber. Quite a lot of the time, our second Chamber is as effective as the limitation that I have just described allows us to be, but it will not continue to be if it becomes a Chamber in which every Government come along and put in a whole lot of new appointments, not even on the basis of the contribution that they can make to this House.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for raising this issue. Issues of probity, trust and transparency in appointments to your Lordships’ House are not new. Indeed, his Question refers to resolutions of this House from back in 1917. Even further back, these issues were being discussed in the 1890s. I looked at the debate of 1894 in the House of Commons. Sir Wilfrid Lawson MP raised the point that many in your Lordships’ House have raised today, which is basically that although these awards are given in the name of the sovereign, they act on the advice of the Government and Ministers, and those Ministers are responsible to the House and Parliament, which is responsible to the public. He said that
“these titles and honours belonged to the public … If, therefore they were not given for national purpose, they were clearly misapplied.”
That is a good starting point for the debate. He said then that
“in the future it should be made more clear why these titles and honours were bestowed”.—[Official Report, 4/5/1894, Commons, cols. 411-12.]
While I do not agree exactly with the resolution of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, he is on to something regarding more information being made available to the public.
The debate in 1917 said that honours were awarded in two parts, only one of which was mentioned in the Question today. The other was that the reasons why somebody was recommended for the honour that they were awarded should be published. If one thinks about honours, whether it is an OBE, a CBE or a knighthood, a few words about someone are always issued, but for appointments to your Lordships’ House just the name and no other information is published. It would be sensible to make available to the public the information on why people have been awarded such an honour.
The second part of the Motion in 1917 was raised again recently. Ministers—the Government—have to be satisfied that no payments to a political party or fund, directly or indirectly, had been made. Again, it is a question of trust, probity and transparency.
I would go slightly further than the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and want to pick up on comments that other noble Lords have made. I am not going to get into numbers, as my noble friend Lord Griffiths and others did, but there is a further point that we can look at. We have had debates in your Lordships’ House about HOLAC being put on a statutory footing. I was not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Howard, was arguing against any committee at all—he seemed to be arguing against HOLAC. I support its work but think it could be refined and be more transparent. We do not want a House of the great and the good but a House that is a little more representative.
At the heart of all this is that we do not have legitimacy because we are not elected. Therefore, probity in appointments is even more important than ever, because the only way in which to have any confidence in those who serve in this House is for people to have confidence in the appointments process. If that confidence goes, there is no role for this House in many ways. That is clear.
The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, about putting HOLAC on a statutory footing, is coming up. I am not sure whether that is necessarily the way forward. Transparency, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, suggested, is possibly a better way, but the issue relates to the integrity of the House.
If you look at the work of the House, particularly this week, it has to be said that we undertake the heavy lifting of legislation. We sit far longer than they do at the other end. Despite the provocation of the Government sabre-rattling at times because they do not like what we do, we always recognise the primacy of the other place. We look at Bills and legislation in far greater detail and have a much more forensic approach to it. However, again I come back to the fact that, because of the way in which we are appointed, the process has to be beyond question and have integrity.
Noble Lords may have heard the Tortoise Media podcast that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, contributed to, which was published yesterday, I think. I recommend it because one of the issues that it talks about is the transparency of the vetting process, so that members of the public, those making the appointments and, indeed, the monarch can be assured that they can have confidence in that process. One of the reasons that it has become such an issue now is the concern about individual appointments that have been made and about the Prime Minister overruling HOLAC, which has never happened before.
I will put on record four suggestions that I think may be of assistance. I hope that I may have another minute, given that we have a bit of extra time. I thank the Minister. First, along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, giving the public further information about why someone has been appointed is a modest proposal. Secondly, I come back to the second point in 1917 about having no party-political donations. They should not be a qualification or reason for appointing anyone. Thirdly, I cite the point about the vetting process being open and transparent. Fourthly —this may be a little more controversial—I go back to what was said in the 1890s, so I cannot claim this as an original thought. At that time, the MP proposed that “when a man”—today we would add “or a woman”—has
“enjoyed a title or honour for two or three years he would be taken into Court and examined in order to see whether he was still worthy of it, and whether the man had ennobled the title in the same way that the title had ennobled the man.”—[Official Report, Commons, 4/5/1894; col. 412.]
What about some post-appointment assessment to look at the contribution that those who come into your Lordships’ House have made? We welcome people who are prepared to play a full role in the work that we do—I do not think that any of us, from any party, do not, regardless of party politics or of whether we are independents or Cross-Benchers. This is perhaps a bit more controversial, but can we look at post-appointment assessment?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Balfe for securing this important and very interesting short debate. I was happy to yield the Floor, as they say in the US, to the noble Member from the Labour Party—I cannot precisely remember the phrase from the Senate. Her suggestions were interesting and good to hear but also challenging, because who would carry out this post-appointment scrutiny of performance? It is, of course, a deficit in this House that we are not subject, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, would say, to the ultimate assessment of performance, which is by the electorate. What would the consequence be if a committee said that a person was not doing very well or that it did not like what he or she had said? I am simply saying that those are the kinds of issue that would arise. Who would actually do this assessment?
I am not suggesting for one second that it should be based on what people say; it should be on whether they are able to make a contribution to the work of the House, regardless of what side they are on, how they vote and what views they espouse. We could debate the other issues.
All right. I will stick to the main point of the debate, although there is a serious issue about whether people have to be here day after day, every day, to make a contribution. My noble friend Lord Howard of Rising spoke interestingly on that point. There are people who do not come here often but whose voices we hear and listen to very carefully. We all know them.
This was a fascinating debate, and I agree with what was said about King George V and Jane Ridley’s biography, which is outstanding. Of course, one of the things that he recognised was that Lord Curzon could not become Prime Minister, despite his truly outstanding career of public service, because he had a place in what the noble Lord, Lord Desai, would call a less legitimate Chamber and thus could not, among other things, answer to the new Labour Party arising in the House of Commons. The reality is that there are issues of legitimacy, which I will come back to later in my remarks.
The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, made an interesting speech, as he always does. He complained at one point about the number of Peers appointed by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. As I always point out, his rate of appointment is far lower than that undertaken by Mr Blair in his first term in office. That gets to be forgotten. There was talk about the imbalance of the House. I must say that, sitting in the Chamber last night, with eight defeats, defeat after defeat, it did not seem a very unbalanced House. Here we are, night after night, with your Lordships hammering the Government’s proposals to deal with issues such as illegal immigration and crime, and the very things that the Home Secretary seeks to do being challenged. I do not feel that the alleged imbalance is preventing your Lordships asking the House of Commons to think again rather often.
Someone asked what my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising meant. The phrase I noted down was that the views of committees are often reflected in those selected. I thought that was a profound and true remark. If we look at the reflection of some of those appointed—I do not have time to pursue it—I think that that remark would have something in it. We need individuality in the House, and it was exemplified, I may say, by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. I do not always agree with her, but she certainly makes an individual contribution, and I find it very welcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke about numbers, as he often does. He rightly said that what we really need to look at it is the people who played an active part in 2019 to 2021. The average number was 471. He has this idea of a ceiling of 600. Does he propose that we should appoint 130 more Peers to bring the House up to that number? If they were to attend only 20% to 25% of the time, as he suggested, that would be 130 times four: another 600 Peers to get that effective number here. The numbers participating—
I shall read very carefully what my noble friend said in Hansard tomorrow. I believe he said that we should pay attention to the numbers actually participating, and he certainly said that he wanted more Peers who would be here for 20% to 25% the time. If he said neither of those things, I will correct my remarks, write to him and publish it to others.
I welcome that clarification.
The Governments of the previous and current Prime Ministers have made it clear that they did not accept the proposal from the Burns committee, which would place a limit on the size of this House. That certainly remains the Government’s position. I point out that my right honourable friend has exercised more restraint than Mr Blair in his appointments.
The House has a key role in scrutinising the Executive and as a revising Chamber, and one of the highest callings one can receive is to sit in this House—we all agree on that, whatever our differences.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I will continue. My noble friend Lord Balfe was right to ask how Governments ensure that nominations are properly vetted. As noble Lords will be aware, the Prime Minister, as the sovereign’s principal adviser, has responsibility for recommending to the sovereign those to be appointed to life peerages. The noble Lord, Lord Beith, made a strong and valid constitutional point about a defect in one of the proposals in my noble friend’s Question: one must not put the sovereign in the difficult position of having to make those kinds of decisions.
The Prime Minister asks the House of Lords Appointments Commission to vet life peerage nominations for propriety, including party-political nominees and ministerial appointees. The check on propriety will include checking with relevant government departments and agencies, and other organisations. The Appointments Commission also conducts media and online searches. In my judgment, the House of Lords Appointments Commission carries out its role effectively as it is currently constituted. It will continue to advise on appointments in the same way that it does now.
Although the commission’s role is advisory, the Prime Minister continues to place great weight on its careful and considered advice before making any recommendations to the sovereign. However, as in many areas, elected Ministers may from time to time take a different view to official advice on balancing the competing issues. With regard to my noble friend Lord Balfe’s suggestion that the commission’s advice should accompany any recommendation to the sovereign and be placed in the Libraries of both Houses, as I have said, the Prime Minister places great weight on the commission’s views but it is ultimately for the Prime Minister to recommend, not the commission. I submit that it is reasonable that personal data and free and frank comment relating to an individual who is nominated should be confidential, which would not be the case if documents were laid before Parliament.
In the case of my noble friend Lord Cruddas, who is constantly cited in his absence, as the Prime Minister set out in his letter to the commission, he gave very careful consideration to the points it raised but also weighed these against other factors. This was a clear and rare exception to Prime Ministers considering such opinions from the commission. The Government were fully transparent in taking that different stance by publishing the Prime Minister’s letter to the noble Lord, Lord Bew.
As the commission noted in a letter to PACAC:
“The Commission provides advice but does not have a veto. Ultimately, appointments are a matter for the Prime Minister.”
The noble Lord, Lord Bew, then said:
“We do, however, welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to publish his recent letter, and his indication that he considers this to be an exceptional case.”
Indeed, to ensure the kind of transparency that your Lordships seek, the commission will write to the PACAC chair should a case ever arise again, as on this occasion, where a recommendation is made against the commission’s advice.
So far as the 1917 resolution is concerned, I think time has elapsed a little since 1917. It is true that the House of Lords, as someone put it at the outset, was perhaps a little out of touch at that time—I see on the annunciator that there is another defeat for the Government in the Chamber and rest the case I made in my opening remarks.
On the idea of money and donations, I submit that it is wrong to criticise individuals being ennobled just because they have also chosen to support or donate to a political party. Donations should be transparent, but that is not an excuse to knock people out for broader philanthropic services, enterprise or public service. Volunteering and supporting a political party are part of our civic democracy.
The constitutional position in the country is that the Prime Minister is responsible for advising Her Majesty on appointments to the House of Lords, and receives vetting advice on the propriety of appointments through HOLAC. The Government do not see the case for changing this. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, the Prime Minister is ultimately responsible to Parliament, and the people, for any nominations he makes to this House.