In its response to the Public Administration Select Committee’s 2010 report, Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament, the UK Government (led at the time by Prime Minister David Cameron) agreed with the Committee that “ministerial appointments from outside the existing membership of the House of Commons and House of Lords should be exceptional.”
After Lord Cameron’s recent appointment as Foreign Secretary and concomitant appointment to the second chamber in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet reshuffle, we must assume, then, that His Lordship considers himself exceptional in some way. Quite how is somewhat of a mystery, but at least he seems to have recognised in a past life the peculiar nature of his present appointment.
Indeed, to some unfamiliar with the niceties of the constitution, the appointment may appear unusual to the point of spawning shock and outrage. It may come as a surprise to many that, as a matter of constitutional law, a government minister need not be a member of either of the Houses of Parliament at all.
However, as ministerial accountability to Parliament is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution, a convention has developed which means, in practice, a minister must be a member of either the Commons or the Lords in order that they may be held to account by parliamentarians.
Since Cameron was not a member of either house, Mr Sunak had to parachute him into the Lords in order to appoint him as Foreign Secretary. Of course, the appointment of members of the House of Lords to ministerial roles is not a new phenomenon, albeit the appointment of Cabinet ministers from the Lords has decreased dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century.
Clement Attlee’s first Cabinet in 1945 and Harold Macmillan’s administration in 1957 contained five Lords apiece, while Churchill’s 1951 Cabinet contained seven Lords. However, in the modern era since 1979, the proportion of Peers taking up ministerial appointments has remained remarkably stable, hovering around 21% of total government ministers, with the number of Cabinet ministers remaining between one and two.
In recent years, the picture has been a mixed one when it comes to Cabinet ministers in the Lords. In Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Cabinet there were two departmental Secretaries of State in the Lords; David Cameron’s 2015 government did not include any Cabinet ministers in the Lords, other than the Leader of the Lords, and neither did Theresa May’s governments of 2016 or 2017. In Boris Johnson’s December 2019 administration, there were two Cabinet ministers in the Lords.
Much as ministerial appointments from the Lords are not a new phenomenon, neither is the controversy that often goes with them. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, he set about creating what he dubbed a “government of all the talents”, provoking concerns over the number of peerages created to appoint people from outside Parliament to ministerial portfolios.
Since then, there have been numerous proposals from myriad sources to reform the system. For example, noting the Public Administration Select Committee’s concern at the number of appointments made by Brown to the Lords, Goats and Tsars recommended that ministers appointed to the Lords should be required to resign their seats after they leave government.
There have been additional proposals from both House of Commons and House of Lords committees on improving parliamentary accountability of ministers appointed from the second chamber.
Another example appears in a 2008 report considering scrutiny of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform from the Business and Enterprise Select Committee. The report suggested that Secretary of State Lord Mandelson, who had been appointed to the Lords by Brown to take up his ministerial position, should be held accountable to the House of Commons, even though he was not an MP. It even suggested that Mandelson should be able to appear at the dispatch box in the lower house, to appear in front of a Grand Committee of MPs, or alternatively be questioned in a sui generis sitting of MPs at Westminster Hall.
Furthermore, a 2010 report from the House of Commons Procedure Committee recommended that an experiment should be conducted whereby ministers from the Lords should be questioned in the Commons. The report suggested the experiment should consist solely of questions and should take place in Westminster Hall. It would apply only to departmental Secretaries of State in the Lords and would complement rather than replace the regular departmental question times.
Meanwhile, a report from the House of Lords Procedure Committee from the same year recommended that on one Thursday each month when the House was sitting, 15 minutes should be set aside for three oral questions addressed to the Secretary of State, immediately following the existing 30 minutes for oral questions. Where there was more than one Secretary of State in the Lords, they would answer questions on different Thursdays within any given month.
Other than the additional 15 minutes of questions addressed to the Secretary of State recommended by the Lords Procedure Committee, none of the proposals for reform has been adopted to improve the accountability of ministers sitting in the Lords.
Even with such reforms in place, however, it is doubtful whether they would be sufficient to justify such an egregious quirk in our parliamentary democracy – one that allows unelected, private citizens to be elevated to the second chamber and appointed ministers in the government. Lord Cameron’s recent appointment by Sunak is a salient reminder of this fact.
What makes the case of Cameron particularly striking is that he was so obviously appointed to the Lords only so that he might serve as a minister in Sunak’s administration. Now he is in there for life, whatever the fate of that administration in the coming months. Moreover, his appointment was not as just any old minister, but as Foreign Secretary – one of the Great Offices of State, with significant clout in Cabinet, and acting as the face of Britain abroad.
To say Cameron suffers from a lack of democratic legitimacy is an understatement in the extreme. Cameron has not had to face an election and the voters have no way to get rid of him. There are also examples in the recent past of this same procedure not only giving rise to a democratic deficit but, indeed, being used for overtly anti-democratic purposes, including to reverse the results of elections. One may recall that Zac Goldsmith lost his Richmond Park seat in the 2019 General Election. Not to worry as, laughably, Boris Johnson simply anointed him Baron Goldsmith of Richmond Park so he could take up his new job as Minister of State for the Pacific and the International Environment.
Aside from the conspicuous lack of democratic legitimacy, we must also return to the more practical question of how Lord Cameron is going to be held to account in Parliament. As almost none of the reform proposals discussed above has been implemented, as a Secretary of State currently sitting in the Lords, Cameron does not have to face questions from MPs. Who, then, will step in for Foreign Affairs Questions in the Commons now that the Foreign Secretary sits in the Lords? It seems Andrew Mitchell MP will claim the title of “Deputy Foreign Secretary” and stand in his place, but it is a poor substitute.
This procedure is also likely to vitiate the quality of government decision-making. Part of the benefit of having MPs in ministerial roles is that, at least in theory, they bring the real concerns of ordinary British citizens to bear on the setting of government policy.
This fact was recognised recently by former Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, in his oral evidence given to the UK COVID-19 Inquiry. In his testimony, Sedwill said that one of the principal advantages of the UK’s system of government is that the people calling the shots are not merely technocratic officials but rather elected constituency MPs who are, again at least in theory, in tune with their own constituents.
Ministers as MPs who are also answerable to Parliament and directly accountable to their constituents via elections keeps government decision-making and policy grounded in some form of reality, even if they do not always get it right. Moreover, at a time when citizens are rightly concerned about powerful vested interests pulling the strings behind the scenes in our democracy, it is worrying that the new Foreign Secretary has no parliamentary constituency whatsoever to answer to. Cameron’s close involvement in the Greensill lobbying scandal also risks endangering the democratic legitimacy of the Cabinet more widely.
Perhaps most concerning of all, a constitution that enables the Prime Minister to make appointments to the most senior offices in government in this way leaves our system wide open to cronyism, with the principle of Cabinet government vulnerable to rule by Prime Ministerial patronage.
When Cabinet government has already been significantly weakened over the last few decades by evermore presidential-style Prime Ministers, this does not augur well. And where will it end? Unrestrained patronage as a means of running a system of government is never a good idea and can result in often quite absurd outcomes. One may recall from antiquity that Emperor Caligula attempted to appoint his favourite racehorse as a Roman Consul.
What is more absurd: appointing a horse as a Roman Consul or appointing a man exceptional only insofar as he helped to deliver what he likely agrees was the biggest foreign policy disaster in Britain’s post-war history to the office of Foreign Secretary? I’ll leave the reader to decide.
Seán Patrick Griffin.
Seán is a Scottish solicitor with experience practising in constitutional law and human rights. He has written widely on constitutional reform and has been published in a number of books and journals on the subject.
The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.
 Public Administration Select Committee, Government Responses to the Committee’s Eighth and Ninth Reports of Session 2009-10: Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament and Too Many Ministers? 21 October 2010, HC 150 2010-12, p5.
 Public Administration Select Committee, Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament, 11 March 2010, HC 330 2009-10, paragraph 79.
 Business and Enterprise Committee, Departmental Annual Report and Scrutiny of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, 25 November 2008, HC 1116.
 House of Commons Procedure Committee, Accountability to the House of Commons of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords, 22 March 2010, HC 496.
 Procedure Committee, Oral questions to Secretaries of State; Committee for Privileges and Standing Order 78; Personal Bills Committee, 9 December 2009, HL 13 2009-10.