Monday, 25 July 2022

The House of Lords - some notes

Last week Lord Mackay of Clashfern retired from the House of Lords and made a farewell speech - My Lords, as I rise to address your...: 20 Jul 2022: House of Lords debates - TheyWorkForYou.  It is an interesting speech in which Lord Mackay looked back at the offices he had held in the law and in government.

The speech is a reminder of the days when the Lord Chancellor had an important role in all three aspects (or branches) of governance - the executive, the legislature (presided over the House of Lords), the judiciary (entitled to preside over the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords).

Lord Mackay was

Lord Chancellor from 28 October 1987 until 2 May 1997. He was succeeded by Lord Irvine of Lairg who, in turn, was followed by Lord Falconer of Thoroton who held the office until 27 June 2007. Lord Falconer was the last to hold the old-style Lord Chancellorship. 

The office was retained but reformed by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 and today doubles with the post of Secretary of State of Justice.  Since  28 June 2007 there have been nine holders of the combined posts.

The Lord Speaker now presides over the House of Lords and the former Appellate Committee of the House of Lords has been replaced by the Supreme Court of the UK which has its own President (currently Lord Reed).

The Law Society of Scotland reported Lord Mackay's retirement - Lord Mackay of Clashfern retires from House of Lords | Law Society of Scotland (

: The House of Lords today :

A present day list of members of the House of Lords shows 762 sitting members. The majority are "Life Peers" created under the provisions of the Life Peerages Act 1958 (as amended). 

Under the terms of the House of Lords Act 1999, hereditary peers are no longer entitled to automatic membership but the Act also enables 90 hereditary peers to be chosen to be members. "Elections" for vacancies arise from time-to-time and are elected by the hereditary peerage which comprises some 800 members.

The Church of England also has 26 seats - the two Archbishops (Canterbury and York) and 24 of the more senior Bishops.

Who's in the House of Lords - UK Parliament

Politically, 253 take the Conservative Party whip, 166 are Labour, 83 are Liberal Democrat and smaller numbers from other parties have some representation. There are 185 "Crossbench" peers who do not take a party whip.

Lords membership - MPs and Lords - UK Parliament

Creation of new peers:

Despite being effectively forced out by his own MPs, Prime Minister Johnson is able to put forward a Resignation Honours List and it is likely to include a number of new peers - see Boris Johnson’s plan to create large number of new peers comes under fire | House of Lords | The Guardian and New Statesman 12 July 2022. The New Statesman article argues that the practice ought to end.

"The real problem with resignation honours, besides risking making the country look like a medieval laughing stock, is that they reward all the wrong things .... The honours system acts ... as a motivator for the “nodding dogs” in government who might otherwise have turned against their incompetent master long ago."

Long-established practice

Be that as it may, the practice of resignation honours is long-established. In 2019, when Theresa May left government, The Gazette published details of such honours dating back to 1895 -

The history of Prime Minister's Resignation Honours | The Gazette

Controversy is not new:

Controversy and Honours Lists frequently go hand-in-hand. A notable example was Harold Wilson's so-called "Lavendar List" back in 1976 in which Wilson put forward 8 individuals for peerages. (In those days, all hereditary peers were entitled to be members of the Lords with the result that the House tended to have a Conservative leaning).

1976 Prime Minister's Resignation Honours - Wikipedia

Most Prime Ministers have tended to put forward names who will, if appointed by the Crown, become Life Peers. (Since 1965, only seven hereditary peerages have been created including 4 to members of the Royal family - i.e. Duke of York, Earl of Wessex, Duke of Cambridge, Duke of Sussex).

In 2020, Boris Johnson put forward a list for peerages of 36 individuals and some of the names were particularly controversial - 36 peerage nominations | Honours system | The Guardian.

This list attracted comment by the Lord Speaker who referred to a lost opportunity to reduce numbers in the Lords. The list was contrary to a proposal, accepted by the House of Lords itself, in the Burns Report  to reduce overall numbers to 600 - Burns report on Lords size: a rare opportunity to be seized | The Constitution Unit - UCL – University College London


Since 2000, a House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) has had a role to recommend individuals for appointment as non party political life peers and also to vet nominations for life peers including those nominated by political parties.

The House of Lords Library has published - Vetting appointments to the House of Lords - House of Lords Library ( - from which it is clear that 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 publication notes -

"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."

Patronage on a grand scale:

Such then is the system which gives a Prime Minister enormous patronage and the ability to affect the political composition of the unelected chamber of the UK Parliament. This is another aspect of the UK's constitutional arrangements in need of reform.


Apart from the process for appointing new peers, the very existence of an unelected chamber in Parliament is a more fundamental issue - see the 2011 post Law and Lawyers: Plantagenet Palliser - after 100 years, will Lords reform arrive? ( Reform did not arrive because the Bill was abandoned in 2012 - Law and Lawyers: House of Lords Reform Bill abandoned (

At the very heart of our democracy is a serious democratic deficit and yet the House of Lords has proven itself, time after time, to be a better defender of democratic rights and freedoms than the elected House of Commons. In many areas the work of the Lords has been remarkable and, in connection with Brexit, its committees produced outstanding reports even if they had no major influence on the ultimate outcome - Brexit & the EU Archives - House of Lords Library (


Keir Starmer urged not to abandon pledge to abolish House of Lords | House of Lords | The Guardian 29 July 2022

Boris Johnson is planning to fill the Lords with his cronies and legitimise bribery | Gordon Brown | The Guardian

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