A little-known non-departmental public body, the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC), has recently been thrust into the spotlight, following the Prime Minister’s latest round of appointments to the House of Lords (if you weren’t keeping track, a total of 52 peers have been appointed by the Prime Minister to the Lords in 2020 alone, bringing the total number of peers over 800, despite a cross-party agreement to keep numbers below 600).
For the first time in HOLAC’s 20-year existence, a Prime Minister overruled the body’s advice regarding the suitability of a nominee to enter the Lords. The Commission stated that, after carrying out its vetting, it could not support the nomination of Peter Cruddas, a Conservative Party donor and former co-treasurer who resigned after having been involved in a ‘cash-for-access’ scandal in 2012. The Prime Minister, however, rejected the body’s advice on the grounds that these were ‘historic concerns’ and that ‘accusations levelled at the time were found to be untrue and libellous’.
What is HOLAC?
HOLAC is an independent, advisory, non-departmental public body. Separate from the Lords, it was established in May 2000 to ensure some transparency in the process of appointments, as part of a series of reforms enacted by the then Labour government. It is made up of seven members, including a chair, with three members representing the main political parties, while the others are non-political members, independent of government, appointed by the Prime Minister following open recruitment.
The House of Lords Appointments Commission has two main roles: it vets party political nominations for life peerages in the House of Lords, to ‘ensure the highest standards of propriety’, and nominates members to be appointed as crossbench peers (non party-political life peers; HOLAC does not nominate all crossbenchers).
One of the reasons the Commission was established was to increase the diversity of the Lords and make it more representative of the country at large. HOLAC’s website states that its appointments to the cross benches aim to ‘add to the breadth of experience and expertise’ of the political and hereditary appointees that sit within the Lords.
But it’s the Commission’s role in vetting nominees that can and has become politically contentious, as we’ve witnessed. The Commission doesn’t assess the suitability of those nominated by the parties, but its role is to advise the Prime Minister if it has any concerns about the propriety of a nominee. The Commission considers propriety to mean:
“i) the individual should be in good standing in the community in general and with the public regulatory authorities in particular; and
ii)the past conduct of the nominee would not reasonably be regarded as bringing the House of Lords into disrepute.”
The Commission does not have the right to veto a nomination and it is down to the Prime Minister to decide whether a nominee should be recommended to the Queen for appointment.
Options for reform
The latest example isn’t the first time the Commission has said it could not support a nomination – indeed, in 2006, HOLAC rejected four nominees who would become embroiled in the so-called ‘cash-for-honours’ scandal. But this is the first time that the Commission’s advice has not been heeded.
Leaving aside the issue of the size of the House of Lords, which peers themselves have recognised as in need of reform, and the fact that – as in the summer – new appointments were made when parliament was not sitting, it is shocking to see how easily the Prime Minister could overrule the independent body’s advice. This raises the question of whether HOLAC is fit for purpose, given that prime ministers seem to be able to appoint donors and allies as they please, regardless of independent advice.
Commenting after the Prime Minister’s rejection of HOLAC’s advice, the Lord Speaker criticised the limited powers of the Commission arguing its present powers are ‘fundamentally deficient’ and pointing to the advisory nature of its decisions.
Reform of HOLAC has also been picked up in the House of Lords. On 5 January, Baroness Hayman asked a Private Notice Question on the House of Lords Appointments Commission, calling for its remit and independence to be placed on a statutory footing to rebuild public confidence in the process of appointments. Peers supportive of Baroness Hayman’s position highlighted how the Prime Minister overturning HOLAC’s independent advice might have a detrimental effect on public confidence in the House, with Baroness D’Souza adding that the government is lagging behind the Lords on three issues: the size of the House; hereditary peer by-elections; and the integrity of the appointments process. However, the government minister made clear that there were no plans to change the role and remit of HOLAC, protecting it by statute.
A fairly elected second chamber
But even reforming this one aspect of the working of the House of Lords would be insufficient to bring about the change that is necessary to restore public confidence in the institutions of our democracy as the public still get no say on those performing the important role of scrutinising and revising legislation. Without elections to the Lords the system remains fundamentally broken.
Only a second chamber elected via proportional representation, and which represents and gives a voice to the nations and regions of the UK, would genuinely empower citizens and enhance trust in our democracy.
With the limited scrutiny on appointments being shown to fail, it’s time for the people to decide who makes our laws, not the Prime Minister.
Sign our petition for a fairly elected second chamber