New blood for Select Committees? House of Lords’ ‘rotation rule’ proves less than straightforward

9 Feb 2023
Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee quizzes Home Secretary Suella Braverman MP. ©House of Lords / Roger Harris
Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee quizzes Home Secretary Suella Braverman MP. ©House of Lords / Roger Harris

A January 2023 debate shows the House of Lords still seeking to settle on a 'rotation rule' for its Select Committee Members that accommodates the numbers of Peers who wish to serve, the benefits of wide participation but also experience and institutional memory, the varying nature of Committees, and the changeable lengths of parliamentary Sessions. The issue seems likely to return.

Sir David Beamish, Trustee, Hansard Society
Trustee, Hansard Society

Sir David Beamish

Sir David Beamish
Trustee, Hansard Society

David served as the Clerk of the Parliaments, the most senior official in the House of Lords, between 2011 and 2017. His career in the House included stints as Clerk of the Journals, Clerk of Committees and Clerk of the Overseas Office. For several years, on secondment to the Cabinet Office, he served as Private Secretary to the Leader of the House of Lords and Government Chief Whip. Following his retirement, he was appointed as an honorary Senior Research Associate of the Constitution Unit at UCL. He is also a member of the Southwark Diocesan Synod and secretary of the Dulwich Deanery Synod. In 1988 he was the winner of BBC Mastermind; the life and career of Nancy Astor was his specialist subject.

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On 31 January 2023 the House of Lords Senior Deputy Speaker, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, moved 27 motions appointing, or amending the membership of, Select Committees, with immediate effect. The first 26 motions were taken en bloc without debate. The 27th, replacing seven of the 11 members of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC), was the subject of an amendment tabled by the Conservative Peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who was due to be replaced as SLSC Chairman under the terms of the original motion.

Lord Hodgson’s amendment did not seek to block the replacement of the SLSC Members, but it would have added to the motion the statement that:

“... this House, whilst recognising the qualities of the proposed new members of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and whilst entirely supporting the need for appropriate rotation of members, deplores the decision to rotate off at the same time seven out of 11 members of the Committee, including the chair, now and every three years hereafter; believes that this will undermine the quality of service the Committee gives to the House; and therefore calls on the Committee of Selection (1) to ensure that future rotations should be as close as possible to one third of the total membership of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and (2) to report to the House before the House rises for the summer recess setting out how this will be achieved.”

How did the situation that was the subject of Lord Hodgson’s amendment come about?

The rest of this post reviews the history of the ‘rotation rule’ in the House of Lords and its application in this case.

Rotation of House of Lords Committee Members dates back to 1971, since when the arrangements have been revised several times.

In February 1971, the then-Leader of the House appointed a group of four Peers, chaired by Lord Aberdare (then-Deputy Leader of the House and later Chairman of Committees), to examine “the working of the House and to make recommendations for the more effective deployment in the public interest of the time and talents of its members”.

The group’s report included the following recommendation:

XIII. COMPOSITION AND MEMBERSHIP OF COMMITTEES 47. We have considered the composition and membership of House Committees, e.g. the Procedure or Offices Committee. There exists some feeling on the Back-Benches that House Committees do not have a sufficient turnover in membership and that there is a tendency, once a Peer has been put on a committee, for him to continue to serve on it for life. This means that some House Committees have a very small representation, if any, of the newer and younger members of the House and that the opinions of the senior members of the House may be over-represented. We, therefore, recommend that a new convention should be established whereby Peers would only serve for a period of three years on House Committees and should retire by rotation at the end of three years service. The exception to this convention would be the Party Leaders and Whips and the “co-ordinator” [soon afterwards renamed ‘Convenor’] of the Cross-Benchers. Some years ago such a proposal was made for the Procedure Committee and was accepted in principle, but it was not carried out. We suggest that it should be part of the regular duty of the Chairman of Committees (in co-operation with the “usual channels”) to see that House Committees are constantly invigorated by infusion of new blood and that it should be recognised by all members of committees (with the exceptions stated above) that they would be called on to retire by rotation after three years’ service, although they could subsequently be reappointed after a lapse of one session. There should thus be a regular turnover of membership and the sessional appointment of House Committees would become less of a formality than at present.”

The group was asked to report again on how this might operate, and proposed a three-year rule with exceptions for certain office-holders. A three-session 'rotation rule' was accordingly adopted in December 1971 on the basis of the following recommendation of the Procedure Committee:

“The Committee endorse in principle the proposals for a regular turnover in the membership of most sessional committees, with all members (save the Leaders and Whips, Lord Chancellor, Lord Chairman, two Deputy Leaders and the Chairmen of Sub-Committees) retiring after three years service. If the House agrees in principle with the Group's proposal, they suggest that it should be modified in detail so that for the first three years retirement from committees should be governed by length of service on committees, and those who have served longest should leave them first.”

That last sentence shows that the desirability of a reasonably steady turnover was recognised from the first.

The report of the Leader's working group had referred to a period of Committee service of three years, with a subsequent gap of at least one Session before potential reappointment. In practice, the 'rotation rule' was normally applied by reference to Sessions. In the House of Lords, Select Committees are reappointed each Session (in contrast to the Commons, where Committees are now generally appointed for a Parliament); and at the time Sessions were normally about a year long (starting in November), except before and after a dissolution of Parliament. Application of the rule in the Lords by reference to Sessions was thus a practical approach which still normally resulted in roughly three-year periods of Committee service.

At the time the 'rotation rule' was first adopted, all the regularly-appointed Lords Select Committees were concerned with technical aspects of legislation, or domestic matters (that is, matters internal to the House) – the House of Lords’ Offices Committee had 54 Members!

However, in 1974 the House of Lords established the European Communities Committee (later the European Union Committee), and the same rotation arrangement was applied to that Committee and to its sub-committees. As other sessional Committees were established (starting with the Science and Technology Committee in 1980), the arrangement was applied to them too.

Over time, some variations to the 'rotation rule' were introduced, which were rationalised in 2005. After this, the House Committee (precursor of the House of Lords Commission) was subject to a five-Session rule; and other Committees (apart from some which rarely meet) to a four-Session rule, with the Chairman exempt for three Sessions after appointment. But in 2014, the Procedure Committee recommended reintroducing a three-Session rule for all Committees, with a two-Session gap before Members were eligible for reappointment.

As long as Sessions were about a year long (apart from immediately before or after a dissolution), the Session-based rotation rule generally operated successfully.

However, after the 2010 General Election, there was a move to a May start for Sessions, with a two-year Session from May 2010 to May 2012. The Procedure Committee’s 2014 report thus also stated, of its recommendations:

“These recommendations are based on the assumption that most sessions will last approximately 12 months. If any future session was to last for a significantly longer or shorter period then the Committee of Selection should be asked to consider whether any ad hoc adjustments should be made to the operation of the rotation rule.”

In June 2019, the Committee of Selection, which makes recommendations on the membership of Committees, reported on the application of the 'rotation rule', noting that the Session which began after the 2017 General Election had already lasted for 24 months. The Committee proposed that the 'rotation rule' should be applied - that is, that rotation should take place - on 1 July 2019, notwithstanding the fact that the Session had not ended. This was duly implemented.

In October 2020 (after the end of the longest and then second-shortest Sessions since 1945, in 2017-19 and 2019, respectively), the Procedure Committee recommended, and the House agreed, that in future the 'rotation rule' should be applied in January each year. In other words, the House agreed to abandon Sessions as the basis for its 'rotation rule' and move to a calendar-year-based system.

The motions moved and agreed on 31 January 2023 thus implemented the post-2020 'rotation rule' arrangements.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC), which was the subject of Lord Hodgson’s amendment, was originally set up as the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee in 2003, and renamed (with a wider remit) in 2012.

Lord Hodgson was appointed as the SLSC’s Chairman in July 2019, when the application of the 'rotation rule' led to five other new Members being appointed to the 11-Member Committee. By January 2023, those six Members had served for three-and-a-half years, so, unsurprisingly, all six were required to be replaced. The seventh member who was replaced in the January 2023 rotation, Lord German, was appointed in July 2020.

Lord Hodgson’s amendment to the SLSC appointment motion drew attention to the problem that is created when there is not a reasonably even annual turnover of Members. Had one or two of those first appointed in 2019 moved on earlier, the problem would have been alleviated.

Most controversially, Lord Hodgson's amendment claimed that the removal of seven of the Members would “undermine the quality of service the Committee gives to the House”. The Senior Deputy Speaker declared himself "stung" by this claim and rejected it in moving his motion:

I emphasise the qualities of the proposed new members of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. These noble Lords are of considerable standing. I am confident that, alongside the four excellent members who remain, they will serve the committee with distinction. As all of us who have been privileged to serve on committees know, there are also officials who ensure their smooth running. Five officials support this committee’s work and will, I know, help to ensure the continuity of what we all deem to be exemplary service.

Lord Gardiner went on to recall how, at the time of the July 2019 rotation, when six Members of the SLSC were replaced, he was a DEFRA Minister:

At no point, and I say this honestly and candidly, did I reflect in the months afterwards that the committee did anything other than provide consistently strong scrutiny of secondary legislation. Indeed, I took the opportunity to discuss this with one or two Defra colleagues last night, because I was so fussed about the matter, and they said, “No, the scrutiny committee was consistently strong and robust—and of course, it kept the department on its toes”.

Lord Gardiner's suggested solution was for Committees themselves to arrange for staggered rotations. In winding-up, he noted: “The Conduct Committee, for instance, decided of its own volition that it needed to establish a rotation. Therefore, lots were drawn and some members served two years and others served three.”

Lord Hodgson’s amendment was supported in debate by three other members of the SLSC, plus the Chair of the Environment and Climate Change Committee, Baroness Parminter, who foresaw a similar issue arising for that Committee in 2024. But the amendment was opposed by the Opposition Chief Whip, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the senior Conservative backbencher Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who concluded:

The answer is for the chairmen of committees who feel this way to discuss with their members how they can get a more even rotation in future and not leave it up to the House to sort out.

That view prevailed, and Lord Hodgson withdrew his amendment.

It remains to be seen whether, by casting of lots or otherwise, Committee Members are willing to take action to make the 'rotation rule' operate more evenly in future.

Beamish, D. (9 February 2023), New blood for Select Committees? House of Lords' 'rotation rule' proves less than straightforward (Hansard Society blog)

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