Next week the House of Lords Reform Bill comes before the House of Commons for the first time. Much has already been written about House of of Lords reform: a distraction from the very real problems our country is facing; an ill thought-through piece of legislation that will lead to political gridlock between the two chambers; an expensive and irreversible constitutional change to a system that works well; and the bizarre idea that a fifteen year term with no re-election provides any democratic accountability. I share all of those concerns. However, I would like to highlight an apparently minor and previously overlooked detail that demonstrates the lack of coherence in these plans. Namely the appointed ministerial members.
Now that the Bill is published, we can see in Clause 1 the composition of the new chamber. There will be 360 elected members, 90 appointed members, 12 Lords Spiritual and "any ministerial members." When I read that last part, I was intrigued. I delved a little deeper.
The ministerial members will be appointed by the Prime Minister, and they will stay a member for the rest of that electoral period (i.e: until the next general election) and the following two electoral periods – potentially for up to 15 years. This is regardless of how long they remain a minister. This is also in addition to the 90 appointed members.
When I raised this a few days ago with a Government Minister I was initially told that each Prime Minister could only ever appoint eight such members. When I questioned what might happen following a general election, I was initially told that a new incoming Prime Minister could appoint a new eight ministerial members but a continuing Prime Minister couldn't. After some confusion, this quickly changed to the explanation that after every general election the Prime Minister of the day could appoint another eight – so at any one time there could be up to 24 members of the new House of Lords who were appointed directly by a Prime Minister. This is in addition to the 90 'appointed members' who are selected by a independent Appointments Commission.
This has two implications. Firstly, it is wrong to say that the new House of Lords created by this Bill would have just 90 appointed members. It could have up to 114 appointed members, 24 of whom were simply chosen by the Prime Minister of the day. Secondly, this will not be an 80% elected chamber. On these figures, there will be 360 elected members put of a possible total of 486 members – just 74% elected.
However, this overlooked 'detail' does not stop there. I have since discussed these clauses with an eminent constitutional expert from the current House of Lords. He is of the opinion that the minister who answered my questions was wrong. In fact, as the Bill is currently drafted, the Prime Minister could legally appoint an unlimited number of ministerial members. According to Clause 24 of the Bill:
"An appointment may be made only at a time when there are fewer than 8 ministerial members who are Ministers of the Crown."
That is the only restriction on numbers. The Prime Minister can appoint 8 on day one. On day two, if all 8 were to resign or be fired as ministers, the Prime Minister could legally appoint another 8. There is no restriction on the total number of ministerial members a Prime Minister can appoint over the course of a Parliament – and each one stays for three parliaments.
Is this deliberate? An attempt to smuggle in by the back door a method for the Prime Minister to pack the new House of Lords with loyal, unelected appointees? If so, it makes a mockery of the supposed intention to have an elected upper house and remove Prime Ministerial patronage. I actually doubt this is the case.
Is it a cock up? A badly worded and badly thought through clause? Probably. If so, it neatly sums up the Bill. That's why I, and so many of my colleagues, will be urging the Government to think again before they impose this piece of constitutional vandalism on our country.