With the Prime Minister set to exit Downing Street in the near future, attention has turned to who’s staying behind: his resignation honours list.
It is tradition for departing PMs to create new life peerages in a resignation honours list. Often these are given to former advisors and political staff and they are rarely without controversy, from Harold Wilson’s ‘Lavender list’ to Cameron and May’s substantial lists of political aids and allies.
Whilst resignation honours lists are a regular (though hardly democratically acceptable) practice, the prospect of Boris Johnson’s resignation list has caused widespread concern. Our Chief Executive had a letter in the Times recently explaining how Johnson’s honours list could be politically damaging: a warning which was followed by a series of revelations in the press about how the system was being earmarked by political strategists to increase government power in parliament.
Resignation honours last a lifetime
The scope to use such appointment for political gain is clear – they are afterall, not ceremonial positions as the accompanying pageantry suggests, but rather lifetime passes to influence the laws that govern us and bestow exclusive access to the corridors of power. Therefore who gets that pass is of real significance.
All too often we see Prime Ministers use the peerage system to appoint party donors and friends. It is a powerful and almost entirely unregulated system of patronage that is wide open to abuse. Whilst the House of Lords Appointment Commission (HOLAC) is responsible for advising on the propriety of appointments, wider suitability of candidates is not within HOLAC’s remit. And yet even this limited role in vetting candidates has been overridden by Prime Ministers in the recent past.
The House of Lords is the second largest chamber in the world
Alongside the issue of who, is the issue of how many. Currently just over 800 strong, the House of Lords is both the largest second chamber in the world (apart from China’s National People’s Congress) and unusually, larger than the House of Commons. Recent attempts to reduce the House of Lords have stalled in no small part due to Johnson’s 86 new appointments. The House of Lords itself has warned that an ever-growing chamber is problem for both the efficiency of the House and its cost. Whilst Teresa May was restrained in the number of appointments made during her time at no. 10, she still appointed nineteen new peers in her resignation list.
There is of course an inbuilt incentive for Prime Ministers to ‘rebalance’ the House of Lords in favour of their party, encouraging a slew of new appointments with every change of government. But even this imperative scarcely holds given the Conservative party became the largest party in the Upper Chamber back in 2015 after a raft of appointments under David Cameron. Yet the appointments continue, with Johnson already having appointed proportionally more peers from his own party than his predecessors.
In the short term there should be a moratorium on appointments but ultimately we need to reform the Lords to ensure it works for parliament and for people. The Lords have influence over the laws that everyone in this country lives under – the public should have a say in who sits there.
Add your name to our call: No New Lords