While most ministers are currently members of the House of Commons, around a fifth come from the upper house. These Lords ministers can be put into two distinct categories: those drawn from a party’s members in the Lords to both represent a department in that house and help steer legislation; and the rarer so-called GOATS – outsider “experts” appointed to the Lords for the purpose of being made ministers.
Our report into ministerial effectiveness published last year encouraged the appointment of outsiders, to broaden the range of expertise, experience and project management capacity of ministerial teams. However it recognised that there were questions about using life peerages for purposes they were not designed for, and it stressed that the majority of ministers should come from the elected chamber.
The proposals in the House of Lords Reform Bill currently before Parliament would change this significantly. They would provide an explicit and “fit for purpose” avenue for temporarily recruiting outsiders for ministerial roles. In addition, experience from overseas suggests that the introduction of directly-elected members could have further implications.
The proposals would introduce three, new distinct types of membership of the Lords (over and above transitional arrangements and the continuation of the Lords Spiritual/Anglican Bishops):
•“ministerial members”, appointments made by the prime minister of persons made Lords “only for the purpose” of performing “functions as a minister of the crown”
•“appointed members”, selected for three electoral cycles by a new House of Lords Appointment Commission, the members of which commission would be on the basis of “fair and open competition”
•“elected members”, to be elected for a term also equalling three electoral cycles, in multi-member districts using an open-list system.
The introduction of “ministerial members” would recognise the specific function of some appointments, and avoid the current practice of resorting to life peerages to be able to introduce expertise or fresh perspectives to Government. Provisions in the bill which would make most difference for these members include:
•terms limited to three electoral cycles (in line with other members)
•a limit of eight ministerial members holding office at any one time
•ministerial members would not be entitled to the proposed new Lords salary while they are in receipt of a ministerial salary.
Fixing an anomaly in the system is valuable and should be welcomed; and the limit on the number of ministers of this kind would address concerns of an abundance of the unelected. However the proposals as they stand may contain the seeds of future misuse.
The limit stipulated in the bill is only for the number of ministerial members actually holding ministerial jobs, not the overall number of members of this type. These members are entitled to remain in the house for three full terms with what appear to be full voting rights. This could present an avenue through which Government, and only Government, can appoint additional members for three terms through a series of short lived appointments. The longer a party is in power, the larger the number of ex-ministers from this category it will have, strengthening its voting position in the upper house.
Evidence from overseas suggests some additional potential outcomes of the proposed changes to ministerial appointments. Moving to a mix of elected and independently appointed members could increase the number of Lords ministers on its own, purely by giving the house an enhanced level of credibility. Ministers from upper houses are more common in Westminster systems where these houses have a democratic mandate, such as Australia and India. Canada and Ireland, meanwhile, appoint even a lower proportion of upper house ministers than the UK.
This is despite the fact that Australia’s Senate is elected using a list system, while in India the Senate is indirectly elected by state governments. This means that parties have almost as much say over the composition of the chamber as in an appointed system. The legitimacy of the house could be said to have an impact on the acceptability of upper house ministers regardless of the extent of the choice actually available to the electorate.
Even with these proposed provisions, it is unlikely that the number of Lords ministers would increase drastically. Barriers would remain, such as the inability of a Lords minister to address the Commons chamber, and the usefulness of the payroll vote to the prime minister. However the changes would be significant. Having “ministerial members” has not been tried in other Westminster states, and with safeguards, has the potential to provide a route for getting outside expertise into the heart of Government.