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Explainer

Ministers in the Lords – their role and scrutiny

Most ministers are Commons MPs but some, including the new foreign secretary David Cameron, sit in the Lords

The House of Lords
David Cameron will sit in the House of Lords as foreign secretary, the first to do so in four decades.

Do ministers have to be MPs?

No. Technically, ministers do not need to be members of either house of parliament, although it is convention that they sit in either the Commons or the Lords. This is because it is a core principle of the UK constitutional system that minsters are accountable to parliament. 

Most ministers in government are MPs in the Commons. But every government department also has at least one minister – usually a junior minister – in the Lords, to ensure that peers have the opportunity to scrutinise the work of the department, and to help take government legislation through the upper house. 

It is, however unusual, in the modern era for a secretary of state to sit in the House of Lords – as David Cameron now does as foreign secretary, following Rishi Sunak’s November reshuffle. The last such instance was Nicky Morgan’s short spell as culture secretary in 2019-20; the last time that a foreign secretary sat in the Lords was Lord Carrington in 1979–82.

How are Lords ministers appointed?

Most Lords ministers are appointed from among existing members of the House of Lords, and given their roles by the prime minister in the same way that Commons ministers are appointed.

Sometimes, as in the case of Cameron, who resigned as an MP shortly after leaving No.10 in 2016, the prime minister may decide to appoint somebody who is not an MP to the House of Lords so that they can sit in parliament and so serve as a minister. These are known as direct ministerial appointments. This is not uncommon: before Cameron, Lord Bellamy (2022) and Lord Goldsmith (2020) got their ministerial roles in this way. 

Generally, appointees to the Lords need to undergo the usual vetting procedures undertaken by the House of Lords Appointment Commission (HOLAC). It has been reported that Cameron has already undergone this vetting.  

How does the role of Lords ministers compare to that in the Commons?

Ministers in the Lords have the same fundamental role as their counterparts in the Commons: to be accountable to parliament for the work of the government, represent the government in debates and to take legislation through parliament. However, there are some important practical differences between Commons and Lords ministers.

The biggest is in terms of responsibility. Government departments have teams of ministers, most of whom sit in the Commons – with only one or two ministers who sit in the upper house. This means that Lords ministers need to be across far more of their department’s work than their Commons counterparts. For example, the Home Office has seven ministers, only two of whom sit in the Lords. 

This means that Lords ministers often find they have a bigger parliamentary workload than their Commons counterparts. Lord O’Shaugnessy told the Institute’s Ministers Reflect archive that “I don’t know how well it’s appreciated just how much parliamentary stuff the Lords ministers have to do because you’re on your own.”

A second practical difference is that the procedures and culture of the House of Lords are different to the House of Commons – and this can take some adjustment, even for former MPs. Generally, the Lords is less overtly political than the lower chamber, which can make tone important. One former minister told advised that “in terms of being at the dispatch box in the Lords, try hard not to be too political unless it is absolutely necessary.”

Third, the arrangements for scrutiny are different from those in the Commons. But the quality and intensity of scrutiny that Lords ministers face can be higher than in the Commons – in part because of the range of expertise and level of experience that many members of the House of Lords have. Baroness Stowell found as a junior Lords minister that “quite often you’d be facing people that are the world’s leading authority on the topic.” For example, as a foreign secretary in the Lords, Cameron will be facing four of his predecessors (David Owen, Douglas Hurd, William Hague and Philip Hammond).

A secretary of state in the Lords will have the same ministerial and departmental duties as if in the Commons – though they will only be directly accountable to the House of Lords.

How are Lords ministers scrutinised by parliament?

Government ministers in the Lords are still accountable to parliament for the work of their department. Junior Lords ministers regularly answer questions about their department’s work, but arrangements for secretaries of state in the Lords are more complex, in part because it is relatively unusual for members of the Lords to hold such senior ministerial roles. 

In the House of Lords

Before 2009, there was no set mechanism for secretaries of state in the Lords to answer questions in the way that they would in the Commons. But after the appointment of Lord Adonis and Lord Mandelson as secretaries of state in the Lords in 2009, the upper house made some changes to ensure it could directly scrutinise Lords secretaries of state. These changes meant that secretaries of state in the Lords had to regularly answer questions in the upper house from peers. Initially a temporary system, it was made permanent in 2011, and according to the House of Lords Library is now used whenever there is a secretary of state who sits in the Lords. 

Select committees in the Lords are also able to hold Lords ministers, including secretaries of state, to account by calling them to give evidence.  

In the House of Commons

Members of the House of Lords cannot enter the main Commons chamber (they are not permitted beyond the ‘Bar of the House’, the effective border of the Commons). As such ministers of any seniority that sit in the Lords cannot answer questions from MPs in the lower house, or speak in Commons debates. This means that they cannot directly be held to account by the Commons. 

However, their ministerial colleagues in the Commons are able to answer MPs’ questions about the department’s work, speak in debates and take relevant legislation through the lower house. This means that Lords ministers – including secretaries of state that sit in the Lords – cannot be directly held to account by MPs, but the work of the department that they represent can still receive Commons scrutiny.

Previously, including following the appointment of Lord Mandelson to a cabinet role in the 2000s, there have been debates over whether the Commons should adapt its procedures to allow MPs to directly scrutinise secretaries of state who sit in the Commons. However, changes have not been made. Following Cameron’s appointment as a member of the Lords and foreign secretary, the Speaker of the Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, indicated that he would like to see the government put forward “proposals on how the foreign secretary will be properly accountable to this house.” It is not yet known whether the government will do this. 

Technically, Commons select committees do not have the power to compel members of the Lords – including ministers of any seniority in the Lords – to give evidence before them. However, in practice it would be highly unusual for a Lords secretary of state to refuse to give evidence to a relevant Commons committee.

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