It’s a part of the UK’s political system that is badly designed according to the critics: it doesn’t have the expertise the country needs, it’s much bigger than it should be, and it appoints people at best because of who they know and at worst because of financial donations. Everyone says that something needs to change but little does. It’s the House of Lords.
The Guardian has closed out 2020 with a series of pieces on what’s (still) wrong with the Lords. Its editorial just before Christmas was in response to the Prime Minister’s latest appointment to the upper house, Peter Cruddas.
“In 2006, Tony Blair was embroiled in a cash-for-honours affair that resulted in a criminal investigation but no charges. One newspaper columnist wrote that the case illustrated “the decay of government and the putrefaction of the honours system”. That journalist was Boris Johnson, who earlier this week used his privilege as prime minister to ennoble Peter Cruddas, a businessman, philanthropist and Conservative party donor. Mr Cruddas’s name had been rejected by the Lords appointments commission. Mr Johnson deemed their judgment unfair and overruled it.”
Also on the Guardian site the same day the Lord Speaker, Norman Fowler, called for an inquiry into “the peerages system” (the job of Lord Speaker was created in 2006 and involves chairing business in the House). For Fowler, the problems are essentially: too many lords already, no upper limit to how many can be appointed, no way to vet appointments (since the House of Lords Appointments Commission can only advise) and Lords being appointed by the government when parliament is not looking — sorry, is not sitting.
A piece by Haroon Sidique the next day observed that:
“Almost a quarter of peerages awarded this year have been to Conservative party donors, close associates or former colleagues of Boris Johnson, according to analysis by the Guardian, which raises fresh concerns about cronyism.”
This followed the report a few months’ earlier in the Financial Times that
“at least 22 former donors to political parties have been given peerages in the past 13 years, according to calculations by the Financial Times.”
That was after 36 new Lords were added to the House in July. The Guardian’s analysis noted at the time that even with the new arrivals very few of the 800+ Lords knew anything about the main business of 2020, health.
“Not a single peer comes primarily from a manual or skilled trade background, according to data from the Electoral Reform Society. As the UK faces its greatest public health crisis in more than 100 years, just 2.2% work in healthcare, compared with one in 10 of the general public.”
- In 1999, most of the hereditary peers were removed (92 remained).
- In 2006, allegations of cash for honours caused a scandal for Tony Blair’s government. Investigations followed but there were no prosecutions.
- In 2014, changes were made that made it easier for Lords to retire.
- The Burns report in 2017 called for a limit of 600 Lords, with appointments to be made by the House of Commons rather than the government so as to be shared between parties.
Simon Radford, Andrew Mell & Seth Alexander Thevoz. ‘Lordy Me!’ Can donations buy you a British peerage? A study in the link between party political funding and peerage nominations, 2005–2014. British Politics volume 15, March 14, 2019, p. 135–59, 2020