Lord Fowler: Membership of the House of Lords brings with it with great responsibility
The Lords is a chamber charged with the serious constitutional duty of checking Government legislation and holding ministers to account. The Prime Minister should show restraint on new appointments, writes the Lord Speaker
Over the next few months, the prime minister will face important decisions. These decisions will affect his relationship with the Commons but also determine his future policy on the Lords. With a general election in the offing we are to expect a dissolution honours list which will add to the numbers on the red benches – with perhaps more to come depending on the actual general election result. The decision for Mr Johnson is whether to follows his predecessor’s policy of restraint on new appointments to the Lords or revert to the approach of a former age.
Eighteen months ago, the former prime minister, Theresa May, wrote to me and took an unprecedented step voluntarily limiting her powers by committing to follow a policy of moderation when appointing new peers. She said: “I intend to continue with the restraint which I have exercised to date and, when making appointments, to allocate them fairly, bearing in mind the results of the last general election.” It followed the excesses of Blair and Cameron who between them appointed no fewer than 619 new peers, which at one stage brought the total membership of the Lords above 800.
The path Mr Johnson will take is unclear. At the Conservative Party conference one of his senior Cabinet ministers, Jacob Rees-Mogg, speculated aloud about the very existence of the House of Lords in a way that would have horrified my old boss Mrs Thatcher had she heard one of her Cabinet ministers saying such things in an off-the-cuff fashion. Mr Johnson himself at the UN Climate Change Summit a couple weeks back jibed that there are currently more members of the House of Lords than Siberian tigers.
Although the prime minister attempted humour I fear such an approach will not be enough to get him through the next months when he will be faced with rival groups. Some argue that he should maintain power and appoint a huge number of new peers to ensure Government legislation is guaranteed swift passage. Others argue that nothing will be solved until we have an elected House – although how such a change can be implemented swiftly is not spelt out, least of all by the controller of Commons business, Mr Rees-Mogg.
So, let us at least recognise some truths about the present situation in the Lords. The only action to reduce numbers has been taken not by the last two Conservative governments but by the Lords itself. Following the report of my special committee under the skilled chairmanship of Terry Burns we have seen 66 departures since June 2017. That is not enough, but one should remember that this action has been taken without the help of legislation and on a voluntary basis.
"Frankly we have had enough of peers who are eager enough for the honour of the title but do precious little when they arrive”
Going forward, I would propose two steps which would bring down numbers further and could be supported even by those who want more radical change. The first obvious step would be for the prime minister, who appoints peers, to follow Mrs May and commit himself to moderation and a self-denying policy of new appointments
Where limited rather than wholesale legislation would be required is in dealing with some of the anomalies that inevitably arise if the political parties and the crossbenchers are committed to voluntary reduction while other groups remain untouched. The number of hereditary peers will remain the same as long as there are special by-elections which preserve their total numbers, while the 26 bishops cannot be paired down (which I believe they would accept as part of a general policy of reduction) without legislative amendment.
A more fundamental change which only requires prime ministerial agreement, rather than formal legislation, is the process whereby new peers are appointed. Some who come to the House are entirely unprepared. It is important that those who are appointed to this House are willing and able to accept the responsibilities and duties associated with being a legislator.
The solution here is for all potential peers to be interviewed by a committee – the House of Lords Appointments Commission is the obvious choice – and for them to be asked bluntly what contribution they intend to make – not just speeches and questions on the floor of the House, but also in joining select committees.
Frankly we have had enough of peers who are eager enough for the honour of the title but do precious little when they arrive. They are a minority (I emphasise that), but it is difficult to justify their place in a modern working House.
It needs to be remembered that the Lords is a chamber charged with the serious constitutional duty of checking Government legislation and holding ministers to account. Membership should not be considered just as a reward for past service: it is also comes with the expectation of a future contribution. It is important that as the weeks continue, the Government are able to set out their policy.
Lord Fowler is the Lord Speaker