Convention dictates that a government minister must be a member of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. This means that if the prime minister wants to appoint a minister who is not a sitting MP or serving peer, their only option is to first ennoble that person to the House of Lords.
Most ministers sit in the House of Commons, because its members are directly elected by the public. But the government still needs representatives in the Lords, and so there continue to be ministers in the upper Chamber. Every prime minister appoints peers as Lords whips, and various departmental junior ministerial positions are held by peers. The leader of the House of Lords, a minister that often sits in the Cabinet, is always drawn from the Lords. However, it is rare for other cabinet positions to be held by peers.
Historically, most Lords were hereditary peers, with a small number of other peers appointed to the House for life. But following the Life Peerages Act of 1958, which provided for the creation of more life peers, governments have been able to directly appoint ministers by ennobling them to the Lords. Prime ministers use this power to bring in non-elected individuals into the government.
The last prime minister to hold office while a member of the House of Lords was Alec Douglas-Home in 1963. He stepped down from the Lords four days after becoming prime minister, in order to become MP for the vacant Kinross and West Perthshire seat.
There are various reasons why prime ministers appoint ministers who are not already in government.
PMs often ennoble industry and academic experts into ministerial positions to bring specific experience and specialist knowledge on key policy areas into government. This was particularly common in the years following the 2008 financial crisis, when Gordon Brown and David Cameron ennobled experts on economics, banking and finance into ministerial positions.
In other cases, prime ministers ennoble MPs who have stepped down from parliament or who lost their seats, to allow them to carry on a prior ministerial position. Culture secretary Nicky Morgan stepped down from the Commons at the December 2019 general election, but was ennobled after the election and reappointed to the same ministerial position as secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport.
Sometimes PMs ennoble special advisers and bring them into government. The prime minister can also appoint so-called policy ‘tsars’ to the Lords. 'Tsars' take on a responsibility for a specific policy issue within government, but they are not ministers. In October 2019, Theresa May elevated former Labour MP John Mann to the Lords to serve as the government’s antisemitism 'tsar' (formally the independent advisor on antisemitism). Some 'tsars' have been appointed by successive governments. For example, current enterprise 'tsar' Lord Alan Sugar first served under Gordon Brown from 2009-10 and was then reappointed by David Cameron in 2016.
Both the government and the opposition can make appointments to the House of Lords. All nominated peers must go through the standard appointment process to the House of Lords. To start the process, nominations must be submitted to the House of Lords Appointments Commission for approval.
The commission, which was created in May 2000 as part of the Labour government’s reforms of the House of Lords, oversees all appointments to the Lords. Three representatives who are peers from the largest political parties, a chair, and three impartial non-party-political members sit on the commission. They vet all candidates for propriety and also make their own nominations for crossbench (non party-political) peer appointments each year.
Before someone becomes a peer, their title must be agreed upon, and two legal documents must be issued. First is the ‘Letters Patent’. This is a legal document issued by the King which creates a life peerage. The document must be sealed and marked to show royal approval – and receipt of it allows new members to receive correspondence at the House of Lords under their new ‘lord’ or ‘baroness’ title. Second is the ‘Writ of Summons’. Each member receives a new writ at the beginning of each parliament following a general election, and the writ effectively serves as an entry ticket to the Lords. Once formally confirmed as a member of the House of Lords, a peer may then take up a position as minister.
From the announcement of a potential new member by the government, opposition or commission, it usually takes a few weeks before a peer is appointed. However, in some cases, the process is expedited, and can take as little as a day.
In September 2022, prime minister Liz Truss ennobled Nick Markham, an industry expert and former non-executive director at the Department for Work and Pensions, to serve as parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department of Health and Social Care.
In Theresa May and David Cameron's governments, there were no lords in cabinet positions other than the leader of the House of Lords. However, in May 2015, lawyer Richard Keen was elevated to the House of Lords and made advocate general for Scotland, and economist Jim O’Neill was named commercial secretary to the Treasury.
In addition, David Cameron brought trade and business experts into government as peers. In November 2010, Cameron elevated Stephen Green, former group chairman of HSBC, to the Lords, appointing him as minister of state for trade and investment two months later. On Green’s departure, Cameron ennobled Ian Livingston, former chief executive of BT Group, to fill the position.
As prime minister, Gordon Brown pledged to form a ‘government of all the talents' and appointed numerous ministers of state, such as Baroness Vadera, directly to the House of Lords. Brown also appointed Lord Adonis as secretary of state for transport, and elevated ex-MP Peter Mandelson to the Lords, so that he could serve as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills.
Like any minister, all Lords ministers are subject to the ministerial code, and it is up to the prime minister to decide whether or not to keep them in their ministerial post. But because peers hold their positions in the Lords for life, there are concerns about how to hold Lords ministers to account.
A peer can only be expelled from the Lords for committing a major transgression, such as bullying, harassment, sexual misconduct, or another major breach of the Lords’ code of conduct. Lords ministers are never held accountable to the public through elections, but they are subject to scrutiny from other peers during scheduled question times in the Lords.
There are also concerns about how direct ministerial appointments contribute to the large size of the House of Lords. In 2017, the Lord Speaker’s Commission on the Size of the Lords recommended that a ‘two out, one in’ model for appointments to the Lords be adopted, to help reduce numbers. While all political parties welcomed this, it is not clear that appointments are contributing to an overall reduction in numbers. Even peers appointed just to serve a limited ministerial term remain in the House of Lords until they choose to retire. Since 2016, there have been efforts to reduce the size of the Upper House by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which suggested that special ministerial appointees to the Lords must resign from the Lords when they are no longer a minister.