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The House of Lords appointments process

Posted on 11 July 2023

The House of Lords has recently been in the spotlight, following the publication of Mr Johnson's resignation honours list. This article explains (i) how the appointments process works; (ii) when appointments can be made; and (iii) proposals for reform.

How does the House of Lords appointments process operate?

The House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) was established in 2000 and is an independent, advisory, non-governmental public body. It is made up of seven members, including a Chair. Three members are appointed to represent the three main political parties and the other three members (and the Chair) are non-political and independent of Government.

The HOLAC is responsible for vetting nominations for peerages for propriety and advising the Prime Minister accordingly. The HOLAC's Code of Practice is clear; the HOLAC does not assess the suitability of nominations and has no say on the number of nominations made. It simply advises the Prime Minister if it has any concerns regarding the propriety of a nominee. In this context, propriety is taken to mean:

  • That an individual should be in good standing in the community in general and with the public regulatory authorities in particular; and
  • Past conduct of the nominee would not reasonably be regarded as bringing the House of Lords into disrepute.

Any Member of Parliament that is recommended for a peerage is, upon confirmation of their appointment, required to confirm to the HOLAC that they will step down from the House of Commons within six months.

There is no statutory duty for the Prime Minister to follow the recommendations of the HOLAC. It is, however, customary. Mr Johnson, however, disregarded the HOLAC's recommendation when appointing Peter Cruddas as a life peer. He was the first Prime Minister to do so since the HOLAC was established.

When appointments can be made

Under the Life Peerages Act 1958, there is no statutory limit on the number of new life peerages that can be appointed: it is for the Prime Minister to deem what number is appropriate.

Since New Labour's reforms of the House of Lords (reducing the number of hereditary peers) the Prime Minister who has appointed the fewest number of life peers was Gordon Brown, with a total of 34 life peers, closely followed by Theresa May, with 43 appointees. At the other end of the scale, during his ten years in office, Tony Blair appointed 374 life peers (an average of 37 appointments a year). Mr Blair did not put forward an honours list after he stepped down. Mr Johnson appointed 87 life peers during his three-year tenure as Prime Minister (an average of 29 appointments per year) and has had an additional 45 people put forward on his resignation honours list accepted by the Prime Minister.

Opposition parties are permitted to put forward recommendations for life peerages for consideration by the Prime Minister. In 2022, the Labour Party submitted eight nominations for life peers, all of which were accepted by the Prime Minister.

Proposals for reform

The House of Lords is constantly expanding and questions are regularly raised in relation to its continued suitability as part of the legislature in the UK. It has a large and eclectic membership: it currently has 785 members, 669 of whom are life-peers. In addition to resignation honours list appointments (for which there are no qualifying criteria), each year members are appointed to bring expertise into the House and new hereditary peers take up their seats. There are currently 116 hereditary peers and Bishops in the House of Lords. Only 29% of peers are women. Around a third of life peerages have been awarded to former Members of Parliament.

At the end of last year, the Labour Party released a report – commissioned by Sir Keir Starmer and written by Gordon Brown – titled Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy (the New Britain Report). The New Britain Report sets out a number of recommendations for decentralising power and governance, as well as a proposal for abolishing the House of Lords on the basis that it is undemocratic. Sir Keir Starmer has proposed replacing the House of Lords with a new, elected, second chamber made up of approximately 200 members from around the UK. He has suggested that the new system could be introduced within the first five years of a Labour Government. Labour's plans have been criticised, with Jess Sargeant from the Institute of Government think tank noting that: "An appointments system can bring in experts – like former doctors and supreme court judges. There is some speculation about whether these sorts of people would be wiling to stand in an election."  

There is little doubt that Mr Johnson's resignation honours list has done little to assuage the concerns of existing critics of the House of Lords, yet it will be interesting to see the true extent of reforms should Labour win the next election.

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