House of Lords: Party Balance - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:46 pm on 9th January 2023.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 2:46 pm, 9th January 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to review the current balance between members of the House of Lords who take the Conservative whip and those who take the whip of the Official Opposition.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, appointments to the House of Lords are a matter for the Prime Minister to advise the sovereign. There is a long-standing convention that the leader of the Opposition may nominate political Peers from or representing their own political party. Recent nomination lists include both government and opposition Peers, as well as Cross-Bench and non-affiliated Peers. The Government keep these matters under review.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

My Lords, perhaps the Government will keep the following under review. I ask the Minister to confirm that there are now 89 more Tory Peers in this House than there are from the Official Labour Opposition. That is by far and away the biggest majority over the Official Opposition since the House of Lords Act 1999. Can she further do the maths, as I can and point out that, in the event of a future Labour Government, we would need to appoint 178 new Labour Peers to get the same majority as the Tories have now? I quite like the sound of that, actually. Will she further confirm that, even if we take the House as a whole into consideration, including Cross-Benchers, the Bishops and the non-affiliated, the Tories have 33% of the whole House, which again is far and away the largest majority since the 1999 reform Act? Do these figures not demonstrate conclusively that, over a period now of 13 years, successive Tory Governments have routinely abused the whole appointments system?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I cannot agree with the noble Lord. However, I can refer the House to an excellent chart provided by your Lordships’ Library which shows exactly the current pattern, broken down by party, which is very helpful. It is also true that the Conservative Party has only 34% of the seats in the Lords: there are 264 Conservatives out of 786. The most recent appointments have not changed that dial. Clearly, the relative number of Labour Peers has decreased, but of course there were eight new Labour Peers in the latest list, and I am glad to welcome them to the House. The truth is that the Government need to have the strength to scrutinise legislation properly and carry out their other functions.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is very important that no single party, whatever its complexion, ever has an overall majority in your Lordships’ House? Will she also confirm that some degree of qualification should be needed before a resignation list is produced, and that 49 days does not and must not qualify?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am not sure I entirely understand my noble friend’s point. However, I will say that new lists are a matter for the Prime Minister. The normal process is followed, as noble Lords will know, starting with retiring Prime Ministers making proposals. HOLAC, a very important committee, gives consideration to the probity of those appointments, and in due course the Prime Minister of the day makes recommendations to the sovereign. When we look at the composition of the House, it is necessary to keep in mind that any adjustments have to be compatible with our role in scrutinising and revising legislation, while respecting the primacy of the Commons and the associated conventions between the two Houses. These are important points.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues)

My Lords, at last that was something I can agree with the Minister on. Does she accept that this House works best and does its best work when it is in balance? Her figures, I thought, were somewhat selective. When the Labour Party left government in 2010, after nearly 13 years, Labour was 29% of the entire House, and the Official Opposition—then the Conservative Party—was 26%. After 13 years of government, we had fairly balanced appointments. In the last 13 years, we have had the coalition Government and Conservative Governments. The Government are now 34% of this House and the Official Opposition has only 22%. Does that not indicate the unfairness in the appointment system? It is all very well saying that the leader of the Opposition gets nominations, but they only get those given to them by the Prime Minister. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, wisely says that 20% of nominations to the House should be for the Cross Benches. Should there not be a similar balance between the Government and the Opposition?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

In a very fetching way, the noble Baroness raises some very important constitutional questions. When giving consideration to the composition of the House, we really do need to remember what its role is. It needs to take into account the ability to scrutinise and revise legislation which, I agree, includes the Opposition Benches but, of course, the Opposition Benches are not only the Labour Benches. It needs to take into account the results of the last general election and another statistic is that the Conservatives won 56% of the seats at the last general election. Finally, and I think this is very important, the quality of individuals put forward as Peers must be taken into account.

Noble Lords:


Photo of Lord Judge Lord Judge Convenor of the Crossbench Peers

Is it a very good idea in 2023 for the royal prerogative, which goes back hundreds of years, to be vested in the hands of the person holding the office of Prime Minister?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, does the government briefing the Minister has make references to the White Paper of January 1999 on the transitional House? It said:

“the Government will ensure that no one political party commands a majority in the Lords. The Government presently plans to seek only broad parity with the Conservatives.”

Does her briefing also include what the Leader of the House said in introducing that White Paper? She said:

“The Government intend that the principles of a broad parity and proportionate creations for the other political parties and the Cross-Benches should be maintained throughout the period of the transitional House.”—[Official Report, 20/1/1999; col. 584]

If the Minister is now announcing that the Government has abandoned that policy which was agreed with all parties in the House—I was partly involved in some of the discussions, so I remember it—can she persuade the Leader of the House to come back and tell us what the Government’s new declared policy is going to be?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am not familiar with the precise terms of the 1999 White Paper to which the noble Lord is referring. I do not think we have ever suggested that the proportion should be at a specific level. I come back to the point I was trying to make, which is that you need to have a House that can do the different things that the House needs to do. Noble Lords should also bear in mind that there are a lot more government defeats than there used to be: we need to be wary of too easily blocking the needs and views of the democratically elected House. We also need to scrutinise and revise, which is the role that we all participate in every day, but we need to respect the primacy of the other House and respect the results of the last general election.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend share my concerns about the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which seems to give us Cross Benchers that vote 80% of the time with the Opposition?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My noble friend is right. The HOLAC indeed makes a contribution through the Peers that it recommends. In fact, 74 such Peers have been recommended since the year 2000. However, this debate is on other nominations as well. Of course, they come together to give the service that we provide constitutionally to the country by scrutinising and revising legislation, which is what we need to do. We need expertise and vigour on these Benches to do just that.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

My Lords, there is currently a substantial age differential between the Conservative and Labour Benches so, actuarially, this problem is going to get worse. Do the Government recognise that by the swathes of Conservative nominations that they have made they are only provoking a future non-Conservative Government to follow suit?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I certainly cannot speculate on what any future Government might do. However, one must be careful about the subject of age. Some of the greatest contributions to this House are made by some of our oldest Members—

A noble Lord:

Hear, hear!

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I was glad to hear that “Hear, hear.” We are also increasingly refreshing the House, as we should, with new Members, some of whom are generations younger.