House of Lords reform: what next ? - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

9  The desirability, composition and remit of a Statutory Appointments Commission

61. The House of Lords Appointments Commission was established by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair in May 2000. The Commission has seven members, including the Chairman (currently Lord Kakkar and preceded by Lord Jay). Three members represent the main political parties and ensure that the Commission has expert knowledge of the House of Lords. The other members, including the Chairman, are independent of Government and the political parties. The Commission recommends individuals for non-party-political membership of the House of Lords, based on merit and their ability to make a significant contribution to the work of the House. The Commission must ensure that the individuals it recommends are independent, have integrity and are committed to the highest standards of public life. The Prime Minister decides the number of recommendations to be invited from the Commission; in practice this usually totals about four to five nominations a year. The Prime Minister also reserves the right to nominate directly to Her Majesty the Queen in any one Parliament up to 10 distinguished public servants, on their retirement, for non-party-political peerages. The Appointments Commission vets such nominees for propriety. In total, the Commission controls around 20% of all appointments to the House.[126]

62. Many of those who submitted evidence commended the current Appointments Commission for its work. Dr Russell stated: "it has helped to transform the Cross-benches into a more active place, where members arrive better prepared, and there is now a clearer distinction between independent and party peers. It has also been possible to use these appointments to somewhat improve the gender and ethnic balance in the chamber, and fill clear expertise/professional gaps."[127] Lord Jay told us that, by focusing on merit, quality and diversity, the Commission had helped to bring much-needed experience to the cross-benches. He added: "figures for gender diversity, ethnic minorities and disability on the cross-benches are considerably higher than they are for members of the House of Lords as a whole".[128]

63. Placing the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis has featured in all Government-sponsored reform proposals since 1997.[129] When we heard from Lord Jay, he too stated that he was firmly in favour of a statutory basis. He said: "there are [...] some quite good practical reasons, and if there was an idea that the Appointments Commission should do more than it now does, particularly if it is going to be choosing among party political lists, I think it has to be on a statutory basis and has to be accountable to the House rather than to the Prime Minister of the day for that."[130] We also heard from Alan Renwick, another of those in favour of a statutory basis, who argued that without it there is a "danger that it [the Commission] might be interfered with by an unchecked prime minister,[131] and from Lord Howarth, who wrote:

    While the existing Appointments Commission acts with scrupulous care and excellent judgement it is not satisfactory, to itself or anyone else, that it has no statutory basis, it invents its own remit and makes up its own rules as it goes along. There should be a statutory Appointments Commission, its task defined in general terms by Parliament and plain for the public to see.[132]

Dr Ballinger stated:

    If it can now be argued that it has established the independence it needs without a statutory footing, then nothing can be lost by giving it one; if the Commission suffers from any perception of non-independence, then it certainly should be reinforced by statute. The protection of the Commission by Parliament is an important safeguard, and a re-assurance to the public that it is a genuinely independent Commission.[133]

A number of submissions stated that they would support a statutory Appointments Commission only if a fully elected Lords was not an option.[134] For instance, the Campaign for a Democratic Upper House argued that, "in the context of proposals for a membership without a democratic element, the creation of a statutory Commission would represent, and be seen to represent, a decisive step to a permanent appointed House."[135]

64. Others argued that it was more important to focus on the Commission's remit.[136] Dr Russell, for instance, stated that the existing non-statutory Commission could be given additional powers by the Prime Minister and that "getting these powers right is thus of far more fundamental importance than whether the Commission is made statutory or not."[137] Dr Russell's evidence raised the possibility of extending the Commission's role so that it could play a role in the appointment of party political, not just non-party, peers. She also suggested that the Commission's role could be extended to have oversight of the size and party balance in the chamber and to report each year on the state of membership.[138] Dr Ballinger argued that any significant change in remit would strengthen the case for placing the Commission on a statutory footing.[139]

65. Baroness Hayman's Bill includes provision for a statutory appointments commission which would have exclusive competence to make appointments (although the Prime Minister would be able to make recommendations to the Commission). The Bill also provides guidelines on how appointments should be made. These include an attempt to balance giving the Government a majority over the Opposition with not allowing the Government to dominate the House as a whole. It also guarantees the Cross-benches and non-affiliated Members at least 20% of seats. Lord Jay told us that he thought the proposals contained within Baroness Hayman's Bill for "the size of the House, for the size of the commission, for the functions of the commission and so on are perfectly workable." He did however, note that "there are one or two points that I think would need a little further work". He explained that "at present we have a committee of seven of whom four are independent and those who are independent are appointed by the public appointments process. I would personally like that to continue because I think it is important that, even if you have a statutory commission, the independent members are not just chosen by the Speakers but are appointed through some kind of appointments process so they are seen to be independent of the House."[140] Lord Jay also queried whether the Prime Minister would be prepared to agree that the commission should be on a statutory basis. He told us:

    There is a degree of quite desirable patronage in the present system that Prime Ministers may well think they would like to keep. As I say, I think that it would be good if it were on a statutory basis, and if it were on a statutory basis, it could more or less work as set down here in the draft Bill. I am not at all sure that that will come to pass, although I hope it will.[141]

Lord Richard also doubted that "Prime Ministers will ever give up voluntarily the right to try to appoint people that they think should be in the House of Lords."[142]

66. In the evidence we received, the case for placing the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis was strong. So, too, were the arguments that the Appointments Commission could play a role in monitoring and overseeing the size and party balance in the Chamber and in extending its locus in terms of political appointments. While we support the idea of placing the current House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory footing, we believe that changes to its remit would be best discussed in the context of wider reform of the House of Lords.

126   Ev w41; Q 73 Back

127   Ev w41 Back

128   Q 145 Back

129   Ev w47 Back

130   Q 144 Back

131   Ev w25  Back

132   Ev w16  Back

133   Ev w47 Back

134   Ev w5; Ev w7 Back

135   Ev w30 Back

136   Q 142 [Barber] Back

137   Ev w42 Back

138   Q 141 Back

139   Q 142 Back

140   Q 149 Back

141   Q 152 Back

142   Q 233 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 17 October 2013