This debate will be on the following motion, tabled by Lord Balfe (Conservative):

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the resolution of the House on 31 October 1917 which required that any recommendation for a new peerage sent to the Crown be accompanied by a statement of the reasons for the recommendation, what plans they have to ensure that (1) any person nominated for a peerage has been approved as a proper person by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, or any other appropriate vetting committee, and (2) the assessment of the Commission accompanies the recommendation to the Crown for the grant of the peerage.

What are the powers of the House of Lords Appointments Commission?

Life peerages are created by the Sovereign on the advice of the prime minister. The House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) can advise and make recommendations to the prime minister concerning appointments to the House of Lords. However, the prime minister makes the final decision on whether to recommend to the Queen that someone be given a life peerage enabling them to sit in the Lords.

The HOLAC is an independent, advisory, non-departmental public body. It is not a statutory body. Its role is to vet all nominations to the House of Lords on their propriety. It also makes recommendations for the appointment of non-party political members of the House of Lords.

The powers of the prime minister to make appointments and the role of the HOLAC have been debated in the context of recent appointments to the House of Lords. In December 2020, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the appointment of Peter Cruddas, a businessperson, philanthropist, and Conservative Party donor and former co-treasurer. Prior to his appointment, the commission advised the Prime Minister it could not support the appointment of Mr Cruddas. However, the Prime Minister decided the appointment should go ahead. In his letter to the chair of the HOLAC, Lord Bew, Mr Johnson said Mr Cruddas had made “outstanding contributions” to the business and charitable sectors. Lord Cruddas joined the House of Lords on 27 January 2021.

What is the 1917 resolution?

The resolution passed by the House of Lords on 31 October 1917 contained two provisions. Lord Balfe’s motion expressly refers to the first of these two provisions: that a minister should publish the reasons why someone was recommended to the Sovereign for an honour. The second provision was that a minister should satisfy themselves that the decision to make the recommendation was not directly or indirectly associated with payment to a party or political fund. Both these elements were connected at the time with the award of honours for money.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, concerns were raised in the House of Commons and the House of Lords regarding the awarding of honours, including peerages, to individuals who had contributed to party funds. Gerald Macmillan, in his book ‘Honours for Sale’ (1954), explained that the practice of awarding honours in return for money, as well as for service or patronage, dated back to at least the 15th century. However, Macmillan said the principle that honours should be awarded on merit alone had begun to gain ground during the reign of Queen Victoria. For example, concerns regarding the award of honours were raised in the House of Commons in the 1890s.

On 23 February 1914, the House of Lords debated the first of two resolutions concerning cash for honours tabled in the 1910s. This resolution was tabled by the Earl of Selborne, a former Liberal Unionist MP and former high commissioner for South Africa. The resolution said that an individual’s contribution to party funding should not be a consideration for a minster when recommending them to the Sovereign for an honour. It also included a request that the House of Commons concur with the resolution. This resolution was passed by the House of Lords without a vote. However, the House of Commons did not pass an equivalent motion.

The resolution passed on 31 October 1917 was the second of the two resolutions. It was tabled by the Earl of Loreburn, the former Liberal Lord Chancellor. The resolution, as amended during the debate, was as follows:

That this House, convinced that ministers have in recent times advised His Majesty to confer honours and dignities on persons who have given or promised money to party funds as a consideration therefor, considers that His Majesty’s Government ought forthwith to give effect to the following provisions: (1) That when any honour or dignity is conferred upon a British subject, other than a member of the royal family or the members of the naval, military, or permanent civil service under the Crown, a definite public statement of the reasons for which it has been recommended to the Crown shall accompany the notification of the grant. (2) That the prime minister, before recommending any person for any such honour or dignity, should satisfy himself that no payment or expectation of payment to any party or political fund is directly or indirectly associated with the grant or promise of such honour or dignity.

At the end of the debate, the then Leader of the House of Lords, Earl Curzon, indicated that the Government would accept the resolution. This acceptance was confirmed by the then Leader of the House of Commons, Andrew Bonar Law, on 6 November 1917 (HC Hansard, cols 1972–3, no link available). However, because this resolution was only passed by one House, it was not binding on the Government.

What happened following the passing of the 1917 resolution?

The 1917 resolution was raised in the House of Lords again during a debate on the award of honours for money on 22 June 1922. This debate followed the announcement that the South African mine owner, Sir Joseph Robinson, had been recommended for a peerage by the then prime minister, David Lloyd George. This was announced in the 1922 birthday honours. Sir Joseph Robinson had previously received a baronetcy in 1908 (a title which did not entitle him to sit in the House of Lords). He subsequently lost a suit in the South African courts for misrepresentation, stock-watering, and inside trading in 1921 and had been forced to pay damages. Sir Joseph Robinson declined the offer of a peerage after the debate took place.

On 3 August 1922, the Government announced the creation of a royal commission to examine the question of honours. The royal commission on honours published its report on 22 December 1922 (Cmd 1789, no link available). It recommended that any recommendations for the awarding of honours should be considered by a committee of the Privy Council. However, it said the prime minister should be able to not follow the advice of this committee if they wished. The Political Honours Scrutiny Committee (PHSC) was established in 1923. The PHSC was made up of three members of the Privy Council, who could not be members of the Government.

The Royal Commission on Honours also recommended that the sale and purchasing of honours would be made illegal. In 1925, the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act received royal assent. Under the act, it is a criminal offence to either purchase or broker the sale of an honour. The only person to have been convicted of this offence was Maundy Gregory in 1933, who was found guilty of selling peerages, fined and imprisoned.

The PHSC’s role concerning appointments to the House of Lords was taken over by the HOLAC in 2000. The HOLAC then took over responsibility for the vetting of other honours in February 2005. The PHSC was wound up in the same year.

Recent debates in the House of Lords

The powers of the HOLAC and the process for making appointments to the House of Lords have been debated recently in the House of Lords. On 6 September 2021, the House of Lords debated a motion tabled by Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative) on whether the HOLAC should be placed on a statutory basis. Lord Norton said establishing the commission on a statutory basis would mean it would be independent of the prime minister. Lord True, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, said the Government did not support the creation of a statutory appointments commission. He argued the Prime Minister should remain able to ignore the advice of the commission in “exceptional circumstances”.

Lord Norton has also introduced a private member’s bill entitled the House of Lords (Peerage Nominations) Bill [HL] in the current 2021–22 session. The bill would establish a statutory appointments commission that would consider both the size and composition of the House of Lords when making recommendations to the prime minister concerning appointments. It would also establish new criteria for individuals to meet before receiving a nomination, such as “conspicuous merit” and a willingness and capacity to contribute to the work of the House of Lords.

On 18 November 2021, the House of Lords debated a motion tabled by Lord Balfe (Conservative) on establishing a committee to review the process for appointing members of the House of Lords. During this debate, several members argued the HOLAC should be given statutory powers, including Lord Grocott (Labour), Baroness Hayman (Crossbench), Lord Cormack (Conservative) and Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat). Lord True argued the HOLAC performed its role effectively as it was currently constituted. He said the Government did not intend to change the arrangements for appointments. He also said that prime ministers were ultimately accountable to Parliament and the electorate for their decisions.

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Cover image: Copyright House of Lords 2021 / photography by Roger Harris