By Lord Selsdon - 21st December 2010
Lord Selsdon queries the definition of a working peer.
I had always assumed that peerages and other honours were normally granted as recognition for past services to the country, rather than as an incentive for the future. The main occasions would be 'New Year's honours', and 'Birthday honours' plus, upon change of government, 'Dissolution honours'.
Upon accepting the honour of a peerage, a citizen becomes a Peer of the Realm immediately upon the granting of the 'Letters Patent' and then receiving the first 'Writ of Summons'. This writ, based upon the original writ of Edward III, effectively defines the role and obligations of the new peer.
The new peer only becomes a Member of the House of Lords when he/she has been formally introduced at the introduction ceremony and has taken (or affirmed) the Oath of Allegiance for the first time. Under the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1855, any peer voting, or sitting in the House of Lords without having taken the oath, was then subject, for every such offence, to a penalty of £500. The Oath of Allegiance must be taken at each new Parliament before a peer may sit in the House of Lords.
The procedure of Letters Patent, Writ of Summons, Introduction and Oath of Allegiance collectively represent a contract which is 'Binding in Honour'. This is the background to the official advice that I have been given that:
"Members of the House of Lords, other than those serving in their capacity as paid ministers or chairmen of committees, do not work or have a job."
There are currently some 20 Members of the House of Lords who receive remuneration as ministers, chairmen or Lord Speaker, leader of the opposition or opposition chief whip. There are 10 other ministers or frontbench spokesmen (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) who receive no remuneration. Thus the application of the term 'working peer' to newly appointed peers is wrong and misleading. It is reported to me as an invention of the media.
The House of Lords Code of Conduct provides guidance on the standards of conduct expected of Members of the House of Lords in the 'discharge of their parliamentary and public duties'.
The term 'working peer' appears to have arrived in order for the government of the day to justify increasing its supporters in order to get its business through the House of Lords as swiftly as possible. It seems to imply that only those appointed under the camouflage of 'working peers' will actively work in the House.
There is nothing new about this concept, and most prime ministers since the Life Peerages Act 1958 have overtly boosted their support in the Lords in order to win divisions.
The addition of new Members will, of course, add to the vast breadth of knowledge and experience within the House of Lords. However, it creates a significant administrative problem. Shortly the number of Members of the Lords will rise to some 835 – the highest figure by far since the House of Lords Act 1999.
There are seats in the Lords chamber for less than around half this number and no office space or other facilities to accommodate so many new peers, who may be required to attend frequently. Their votes in divisions will, of course, be much appreciated by the leaders and whips of the different political groups.
It is now up to the government to define who or what is a 'working peer', and what is the proposed role of the House of Lords.