Lord Speaker pushes back at Boris Johnson as he calls for ‘moratorium’ on new peers
Controversial appointments coupled with a large influx of new peers have undermined the work done by many in the House of Lords to repair the Upper Chamber’s reputation, writes Sebastian Whale
Sorry, we’re full. That’s the message that has been sent to the Prime Minister from the very top of the House of Lords.
In an article for The House magazine, Norman Fowler, the Lord Speaker, calls for an “effective moratorium” on new peers. "It is both unsustainable and unfair for peers to retire, only to find that they are immediately replaced by a Prime Minister who appoints more than the number who have departed," he writes. It comes after Boris Johnson ennobled two former MPs to continue serving in the Government and Labour put forward eight nominations in the dissolution honours list (the number of new Conservative peers has yet to be announced).
While Fowler says the dissolution honours are now “all but water under the bridge”, he wants a pause on future appointments until a review is carried out into reform of the Upper Chamber. “There can be a few exceptions, such as front bench appointments, but the general approach should be one of reduction, not increase,” he says.
The striking article lays bare Fowler’s frustrations with Johnson’s approach to the House of Lords. “My chief hope had been that the Prime Minister would follow the course of his predecessor, Mrs May, who pledged herself to “moderation” in new appointments... I fear that my hopes may soon be dashed,” he writes.
Their Lordships are often on the receiving end of criticism. The House of Lords is the largest parliamentary chamber in any democracy, surpassed only by China’s National People’s Congress. With the new arrivals, the total number of peers will push up past 800 once more. The Lord Speaker’s committee, which was set up in 2016 and published its third report last year, set a target of 600 members, while Fowler says there could be an argument for 500. “But to achieve either of these totals we would need the whole-hearted cooperation of the Government,” he argues.
This year’s appointments have already been mired in controversy. Nicky Morgan and Zac Goldsmith were made peers to continue to serve as Culture Secretary and Environment minister respectively, despite the latter losing his Richmond seat at the general election. Among Labour’s nominees include Karie Murphy, Jeremy Corbyn’s former chief of staff and most controversially, John Bercow. The former Commons Speaker is now subject of a formal complaint lodged by a member of the House of Lords, Lord Lisvane, who worked alongside Bercow as clerk of the Commons. Plainly, a string of contentious appointments coupled with a large influx of new peers has undermined the work done by many in the House of Lords to repair the Upper Chamber’s reputation and standing.
The Government has proposed to set up a Constitution Commission to consider, among other areas, House of Lords reform. Fowler, who agrees that there are several areas to review, fears such a body could result in decisions being “put off and postponed”. “You can almost hear ministers replying to probing questions with, ‘I am sure that this very important matter can be considered by the Commission in due course’. What will not be said is that implementation of the final report is likely to be two or three years down the road,” he says.
This is why Fowler has decided to speak out. Alongside a pause on new peers, he would like to see changes made to the process of appointments. Another charge waged at their Lordships is that a sizeable number of them fail to turn up or contribute. In the 2017-19 parliament, more than 100 members took part in fewer than 10 percent of divisions. “There is, unfortunately, a small minority of peers who take very little part in the work of the Lords,” Fowler says. This, in turn, further undermines much of the scrutiny that does take place in the Upper Chamber.
To rectify this, Fowler calls for the Appointments Commission to be given more powers to establish whether candidates understand how the House of Lords works and if they intend to make a contribution.
“Frankly, that is the very least that can be expected for members of an appointed House which is part of the national legislature where members make laws and check the Government’s legislative proposals – always remembering that it is the elected MPs who are the final arbiters,” he concludes.
Peers receive a lot of flak from various quarters, mostly from a democratic standpoint, and often out of their own making. But efforts are being made to make the Lords a more viable institution. It is clear than when those are undercut, the Lord Speaker will make himself known.