On 18th November 2022, the House of Lords debated the House of Lords (Peerage Nominations) Bill in its second reading. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in support of the bill:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, there have been a number of occasions in recent years when this House has debated its make-up, its processes of nomination and its role. The test of any Bill to reform aspects of the House of Lords is surely whether it will enhance the core functions of this House; namely, to revise, to scrutinise and to ensure that the membership retains significant independence and expertise. A further useful test is whether the proposed changes are simply a response to some current problems or whether they have the potential to enhance the work of the Lords in the long term. It seems to me that, unless we are going to go for something very radical and different, this Bill meets these tests. It is modest in its proposals but I believe it is worthy of support none the less. It comes in a long line of incremental but sensible and pragmatic changes to Lords procedure and practice. I suggest that the history of Lords reform shows that incremental change tends to be the most successful.
As your Lordships will all be aware, this year marks the 175th anniversary of the Bishoprics Act—I gather that little else has been discussed in the tea rooms and bars recently. That Act for the first time placed limitations on the royal prerogative to issue Writs of Summons to attend the House, by limiting to 26 the number of Church of England Bishops who could sit as Lords Spiritual. Back then, like now, any reform brought heated debate, and although the Act passed, a Motion was carried in the House that it set
“a dangerous precedent … contrary to the privileges of the Lords Temporal as well as Spiritual.”—[Official Report, 22/6/1847; col. 797.]
I think I can announce to the House that after a careful 175-year trial period, the principle of upper caps is one we on these Benches can get behind. Though the noble Lord’s Bill does not argue for a statutory cap, I certainly welcome the proposal that the Prime Minister ought to have regard to the commission’s advice on reducing numbers, and the aim of keeping the size of this House equal to or smaller than the elected Chamber.
The Bill also invites us to think whether membership of this House is primarily an honour or an occupation. Like many supporters of the Bill, I tend towards the latter, but I think in truth it is both and neither. Service in this House is best understood, if I dare say it, as a vocation. The more we move away from that, the harder it will be to sustain what is best about this place. I do not intend to go over the relationship of recent occupants of No. 10 with non-binding convention, except to say that we have lately seen a vivid example of what might happen to long-established norms if we rely on precedent.
The Bill seems to me to be a sensible way to go about reform, banking what is best about our current arrangements while moving us closer to firming up other norms that future Prime Ministers will find it hard to ignore. I hear the concerns of some about an unelected body curtailing prime ministerial powers, and of others that before long any commission may end up appointing in its own image, but it seems to me that the Bill skilfully navigates these concerns in such a way as to limit harms. I especially welcome the stipulation in Clause 7 that
“the Commission must have regard to the diversity of the United Kingdom”
when setting future criteria for non-political nominations, and I want to see that recognised in the area of religion as well as in many other areas. I look forward to hearing your Lordships’ contributions and hope we might be able to back the Bill as it makes its way through its various stages in this House.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Judge (CB): My Lords, I welcome the Bill as a first step on what will be a very long journey. My noble friend Lord McDonald of Salford said that it is long overdue and referred to 1999. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans talked about what happened 170 years ago. Will noble Lords please come back with me to the Petition of Right in 1628?
King Charles I was rather troubled about the Petition of Right and what the Lords would do with it; he wanted it chucked out. There were approximately 100 Members of the House of Lords in those days, and he created six new Peers—just like that. I looked very hard to see what marks of distinction I could find in any of them. I could find none in relation to three, but one of the six new Peers, the Duke of Buckingham’s nephew, happened to be married to the King’s favourite, so that was a gift to his favourite. Another of the Peers had given the King, who was very strapped for cash, £20,000—that was about £3 million, and he got a viscountcy for it. Nobody had ever envisaged the third becoming a Peer, but the new Queen from France had him as her favourite. She was very badly treated by the English but the future Lord Goring became a friend, and so was made a Peer.
Some noble Lords may ask what has changed—I think some are thinking that. What has changed is this: nothing very much except that, as a matter of reality, the powers that the anointed King was able to exercise in 1628 are now gifted to the office of whoever happens to be Prime Minister. If that is the best we can do, I think that is rather shocking.
Lord Shinkwin (Con): In the last two years alone, 54 peerages have been created, of which 35 were given to men and 19 to women. While I welcome all those who have been introduced, to the best of my knowledge, not one of them has lived experience of disability. That matters, because it weakens our claim to be a House of expertise and experience when there are 14 million disabled people in the UK—unless, of course, one still believes that disabled people are simply a homogeneous group to and for whom stuff is done. That was indeed once the case, but the world outside has moved on. I would like to say that we need to move with it.
In fact, since I am one of only perhaps a dozen Members with lived experience of non-age-related disability out of approaching 800 Members of your Lordships’ House, the reality is far more grave: we have an awful lot of catching up to do. This Bill, in particular Clause 7(4)—which the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, and the right reverend Prelate, who is not in his place at the moment, have mentioned—which requires the Appointments Commission have regard to the diversity of the UK population, would help to ensure that that happens.
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