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There is no requirement for a minister to be a member of either House of Parliament. However, in practice and by strong convention, ministers are also members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords—not least so that they are directly accountable to Parliament. Ministers in the House of Lords can be either selected from the existing membership of the House or specifically appointed by the prime minister to the House of Lords to serve as members of the government.
1. Roles of ministers in the House of Lords
The leader of the House of Lords is appointed by the prime minster and is a member of the cabinet. Historically, other members of the House have also been members of the cabinet. Prior to the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Lord Chancellor acted as speaker of the House of Lords and was also a member of the cabinet. Lord Norton of Louth, the Conservative peer and professor of politics at the university of Hull, explained how this affected the number of peers in the cabinet in his 2013 book ‘Parliament in British Politics’:
Two members of the cabinet were, up to 2005, necessarily drawn from the Lords—the Lord Chancellor and the leader of the House of Lords—with the minimum number also usually, though not always, constituting the maximum. The separation of the office of Lord Chancellor from the speakership of the House of Lords—with the result that the Lord Chancellor need not necessarily sit in the Lords—reduced the number from two to one. However, prime ministers have on occasion appointed peers as departmental ministers. The cabinets of Margaret Thatcher occasionally contained a departmental minister who was in the Lords; the most senior was Lord Carrington as foreign secretary (1979–82). Tony Blair briefly had one departmental minister in the House—Lady Amos as international development secretary (2003)—and Gordon Brown appointed two (Lord Mandelson as business secretary and Lord Adonis as transport secretary). Under David Cameron, two peers were appointed to his cabinet in 2010—the leader of the House, Lord Strathclyde, and party co-chair (holding the office of minister without portfolio) Baroness Warsi.
More recently, albeit briefly, Nicky Morgan continued as secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport from the Lords following the 2019 general election. Baroness Morgan of Cotes stepped down from the role in February 2020. This is noteworthy because it is unusual for secretaries of state to be members of the Lords and not the Commons. Ministers in the House of Lords below the level of secretary of state have also attended cabinet, for example Lord Frost was a full member of the cabinet whilst he was minister of state at the Cabinet Office.
The position of leader of the House of Lords itself performs a dual role. The leader has overall responsibility for the passage of government legislation through the House of Lords, exercised jointly with the Lords chief whip. In addition to leading the government benches, the leader repeats statements made by the prime minister in the Commons and assists and advises all members of the House of Lords. At question time it is the leader, rather than the Lord Speaker, who advises the House when to move on to the next question or assists when two (or more) members rise at the same time. Therefore, the leader, alongside other members of the front benches, has a role in interventions. The ‘Companion to the Standing Orders’ explains that because “the Lord Speaker has no powers to rule on matters of procedure, the leader also advises the House on procedure and order, and is responsible for drawing attention to violations or abuse”. The leader of the House also takes part in formal ceremonies in the House, such as the state opening of Parliament. A deputy leader of the House is also usually appointed to take responsibility for advising the House on matters of procedure and order in the leader’s absence. The current deputy leader of the House is Earl Howe.
The term ‘leader of the House’ as applied to the House of Lords only acquired general usage in the mid-nineteenth century, although the position evolved towards the beginning of the previous century. Charles Spencer, the third Earl of Sunderland, was the first peer responsible for the management of the House of Lords from around 1717. The Office of the Leader of the House of Lords is now a ministerial department of the Cabinet Office.
Other government ministers in the House of Lords play an often wide and varied role. Below cabinet level—as ministers or parliamentary under-secretaries of state, or government whips/‘lords or baronesses in waiting’—they are variously responsible for guiding government legislation through the House and for speaking on behalf of the government at the despatch box. Unlike their House of Commons counterparts, however, who will predominately answer questions on their own portfolio area during set question sessions, ministers in the House of Lords who field questions do so upon all matters which fall within the remit of their department (in response to questions addressed to “His Majesty’s Government”). Lords whips have the same constitutional position as departmental ministers. They differ from those in the Commons because they have a role at the despatch box in promoting and defending departmental policy. If a given government department doesn’t have a departmental minister in the House of Lords, then all of its business will be conducted by a whip.
The majority of ministers in the House of Lords have been, and continue to be, selected from existing members of the House. However, there have been examples of individuals given peerages to serve as ministers. In the current government, Lord Bellamy and Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park are examples of such ministers. Once a member of the House of Lords, there is no obligation on an individual to leave, unless subject to expulsion provisions in the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015. For example, there is no mechanism in law that subjects ministers serving in government to any term limits because they are subject to the Life Peerages Act 1958. Members of the House can resign under the terms of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. However, this would be a personal decision and one open to any outgoing minister should they so wish to resign from the House as well.
2. Scrutiny of ministers in the Lords
The government is subject to scrutiny in the House of Lords in various ways, for example through its ministers answering oral questions. Whilst there are no current secretaries of state in the House of Lords, the appointment of such members in the past has led to changes in Lords procedure to facilitate scrutiny.
Until 2009, any secretary of state in the House of Lords was not subject to any analogous accountability in the Lords as a secretary of state in the Commons would face. In the House of Commons, departmental secretaries of state are required to attend regularly scheduled sessions to answer questions on the work of their department. However, this changed in the House of Lords in 2009. A process was devised following the appointments of Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis as secretaries of state, respectively for business, innovation and skills and for transport, in June 2009. This system made Lords secretaries of state subject to regular oral questions sessions in the House answering questions in their ministerial capacity. The House of Lords Procedure Committee has explained “this process was for three dedicated oral questions to be taken on one Thursday each month, taking place immediately after oral questions and lasting for up to 20 minutes”. It was made permanent in November 2011 and is revived when there are secretaries of state in the House of Lords. This was extended to full cabinet members following the appointment in March 2021 of Lord Frost as minister of state for the Cabinet Office, which made him a full member of the cabinet.
3. Scrutiny of Lords ministers in the Commons?
MPs do not possess the same opportunity to question secretaries of state sitting in the House of Lords as Lords members do. Members of the House of Lords, including ministers and secretaries of state, cannot be formally summoned to appear in front of House of Commons select committees. However, in practice ministers in the Lords have and do regularly give evidence in front of such committees. There was debate during the tenures of Lords Mandelson and Adonis about whether such a mechanism of accountability should be introduced, and if so, how best to do so. This was also raised more recently with the appointment of Lord Frost to a cabinet-level ministerial role.
Members of the House of Lords are disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons. However, under longstanding convention, members of the House of Lords can be present at debates and be requested to appear before the lower House. During their time in office neither Lord Adonis nor Lord Mandelson received such a request, or attended a Commons debate, in their capacity as departmental secretaries. Instead, proposed mechanisms of improving accountability focused on enabling secretaries of state from the House of Lords to answer questions either in the Commons chamber (in the same way as their Commons counterparts), or in specially convened sessions in Westminster Hall. A number of parliamentary committees considered the issue at the time. For example, the House of Commons Procedure Committee published a report on the accountability to the House of Commons of secretaries of state in the House of Lords in March 2010. The committee recommended a trial of Lords-based secretaries of state answering questions in Westminster Hall. The 2010 general election took place on 6 May 2010, and the resulting coalition government under David Cameron as prime minister did not appoint any members of the House of Lords as secretaries of state.
Cover image: Copyright House of Lords 2019 / Photography by Roger Harris