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Appointments process for House of Lords ‘deserves reform’ to strengthen the institution, says constitutional expert

Tuesday 21 February 2023

The process of appointment of peers to the House of Lords “deserves reform”, one of the country’s most eminent constitutional experts has said

After a career spanning four decades researching, teaching and writing about Britain’s democratic system as Professor of Government at the University of Hull, Lord Norton of Louth has been described as "the United Kingdom’s greatest living expert on Parliament”.

He is currently taking a private member’s bill through Parliament to strengthen the powers of the House of Lords Appointments Commission to advise prime ministers not only on the propriety of nominees for life peerages, but also their merit and their willingness and capacity to contribute to the work of the Upper House.

In conversation with the Speaker of the House of Lords, Lord McFall, Lord Norton said that there was “a need for change to strengthen the institution”, and he said this should include reform to the way new peers are chosen.

Released today (Tuesday 21 February) in the latest edition of Lord McFall’s podcast and video series Lord Speaker’s Corner, the interview sees Lord Norton stress the importance of an appointments procedure which commands the trust of the electorate.

“There has to be trust in the institution if it's to do its job effectively,” said the Conservative peer.

“So we have a challenge there, not least because people don't understand the Lords, and because some of our processes - or the means by which members are appointed to the House - do deserve to be reformed.”

Lord Norton said that the Upper House performs a valuable role in the legislative process, by conducting line-by-line scrutiny of new laws before they reach the statute book, as well as by monitoring ministers’ use of “statutory instrument” powers to issue orders without a vote in Parliament.

“The Lords if you like, does the heavy lifting that otherwise would not be done at all,” he said.

This process was “complementary” to the work conducted by MPs, fulfilling tasks that the House of Commons “either doesn't have the time or doesn't have the political will” to undertake,” said Lord Norton.

Because no party has a majority in the House of Lords, the second chamber operates by a “culture of justification”, under which ministers must persuade peers of the merits of their plans, rather than the “culture of assertion” in the Commons, where victory can be secured by force of numbers, he explained.

But he stressed that the vast majority of the hundreds of amendments to bills introduced in the Lords each year come about by a consensual process, as ministers accept improvements suggested by peers. Only a minority result from government defeats in the Upper House, and convention ensures that when the Commons sticks its heels in, peers will give way, he said.

Explaining his lifelong work to improve public understanding of the parliamentary system, Lord Norton said:

“People quite often don't fully understand Parliament. They quite often confuse it with Government. Within Parliament, the bit they least understand is the role of the House of Lords.

“When people do know about it, they tend to be quite supportive. It's the people who know least about it tend to be the ones who are most critical of it… It’s up to people to reach their own conclusions, but I'm keen to ensure they do it from an informed basis.”

The Lord Speaker, Lord McFall, said:

“There is continual debate about the future of the House of Lords, and I am keen to ensure that it takes place in the context of public understanding of the work peers do and the role of the Upper House within our parliamentary system.

“After a lifetime studying the Westminster system, there are few people better qualified to explain the issues than Lord Norton. I found this discussion illuminating and hope that the podcast will play a part in keeping the public well informed.”

The Lord Speaker’s Corner podcast can be found from Tuesday 21 February at:

It is also available on the House of Lords YouTube channel:

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