I speak fairly regularly at schools as part of the ‘Peers in Schools’ programme.  If I don’t mention it in my talk, pupils will often ask about the gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background of peers.  On one recent visit, a pupil asked: ‘When do you think the first non-white peer will be appointed?’  I had to point out that the first non-white peer was appointed many years ago and that we now have a much higher proportion of peers drawn from ethnic minority backgrounds than the Commons: indeed, twice the proportion.

The House of Lords is variously criticised for not being a representative body.  Representation is a contested concept and has several meanings: acting on behalf of someone, being freely elected, being socially typical, and acting a symbol.  The Commons is representative in the first two senses, but struggles to be representative in the third sense.  Constituency parties are prone to select middle-age white males as their candidates.  The Lords is not and never likely to be socially typical, but in many respects it is somewhat more diverse than the Commons.  It is also important to note that a greater diversity can be achieved through appointment than election.   For instance, since the House of Lords Appointments Commission was created in 2000, 40 per cent of those nominated for peerages have been women. 

The House of Lords now has a somewhat greater proportion of female members than  the House of Commons and it is noticeable how many hold leadership positions.  The Lord Speaker is a woman, as is the Leader of the House.  Indeed, four out of the last five Leaders have been women.  The Attorney General is a women, as is the Opposition Chief Whip.  The proportion of Opposition front benchers who are women is substantial. 

The proportion of peers drawn from ethnic minority backgrounds is not great but, at 5 per cent, it is – as I have mentioned – double the proportion in the Commons and in the not too distant future is likely to be in line with the proportion in the UK population.  Baroness Amos was the first black woman to be appointed to the Cabinet.  The existence of the Lords Spiritual rather masks the diversity of the House in terms of the religions from which members are drawn.   There are peers drawn from the Christian religions; there are peers who are  Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish, and one who is a Zoroastrian Parsee.  There is also an active Humanist Association in the House.  There are peers drawn from a range of social backgrounds, some with extremely humble origins; for a good example, see Bernard (Lord) Donoughue’s The Heat of the Kitchen.  Some are more in line with the stereotypical view of Lords.

The House is never going to be able to claim to be a socially typical House.  The very nature of the House as one of experience and expertise militates against that, but the fact that we have members drawn from a diverse range of backgrounds complements those features of the House.  The Lord Speaker, when talking about the House, says the membership does not match how people see Lords, except in one respect – age.  Mind you, given the way the age profile of the population is now looking, we are possibly coming more in line – the population starting to resemble the membership of the Lords!


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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10 Responses to Diversity

  1. ladytizzy says:

    I’m wondering: given that the LibDems are advocating a no-name policy for all job applicants, how will they propose potential peers?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: I suspect they would get round it by the fact that a peerage is strictly speaking not a job. There is some uncertainty as to what it is. I believe a peer is the holder of a dignity, but I need to obtain authoritative confirmation.

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        I should certainly be reluctant to call “a job” something that changes the legal name of the recipient. And although class is not as important as it used to be in British society, and therefore such titles no longer carry the enormous significance they once did regarding the social standing of their holders, I’d like to think that they still count as something more than the equivalent of a “legislator for life” appointment. Considering that the practice of granting non-royal hereditary peerages seems to have fallen into desuetude, and that peers have long ceased to be considered celebrities by virtue of their status, one might say that the Peerage is undergoing a slow transition reflecting (with some delay) the shift from an aristocratic towards a meritocratic society.

        Peers have always been understood as an institutionally recognised elite—an entrenched class of inherited privilege stemming from money and power. The last fifty years have done much to change this perception, and the focus has started moving from the recognition of the achievements of ancestors to honouring with a title only those who have earned such recognition themselves. Perhaps this is the only way for the Peerage to remain relevant socially as much as constitutionally: to become acknowledged in public consciousness as a group of people honoured for their contributions to society and fairly drawn from amongst the British people. In this sense, the Peerage may be finally seen for what it is: not as a tacit recognition of wealth and influence, but as one of the highest honours that can be bestowed by the Crown.

        Which all shows how important it is that appointments to the Lords must be fair, and seen to be fair. Anything less than that (and this is, unfortunately, what happens with some political appointments) could hurt the standing of the Lords as a whole, and deal a major—perhaps even fatal—blow, if not to the concept of the Peerage, at least to its continued position in the political system of the United Kingdom.

        (I seem to have strayed somewhat from the subject… Not entirely—diversity is a marker of fairness for the appointments system—but enough to warrant an apology on my part. I suppose these thoughts have been forming inside my head for some time now, and just burst out as I started writing.)

  2. Carl.H says:

    “Representation is a contested concept and has several meanings: acting on behalf of someone, being freely elected, being socially typical, and acting a symbol. ”

    Although MP`s are freely elected most people would definitely state that most of the time they do not represent them but their own party. Infact for most of their term the proportion of the electorate they actually represent would be tiny.

    Is being socially typical a necessity ? I don`t think so though there are cases where it helps. The very well educated, experienced people of the Country are a small minority but this is the type of leadership that is necessary, therefore one would hope leasdership would represent this.

    The Lords maybe criticised for not being representative but they are. They are representative of the experience and knowledge this country has. The diversity in the House helps this a great deal and is welcome.

    The difference between Commons and Lords is significant, nothing really has to be proven to become an MP and safe seats for those who follow orders are available. One of the scathing attacks one often hears of the commons are from party backbenchers and it is that because they did not agree with something their political career has been curtailed, there is no freedom of thought or action. There is no chance to actually represent your constituents.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: I agree that the House cannot be wholly socially representative and there is no reason why it should be, if it is at the expense of the attributes it presently exhibits. We do benefit, though, as you say, from having very able members drawn from diverse backgrounds.

  3. ladytizzy says:

    I am not surprised that you are regularly asked questions on the make up of the HoL but is the motive behind the questions largely taught rather than learned?

    Do you feel the weight of responsibility pass from the teacher to you (as an alpha teacher) when you explain that greater diversity has been achieved in the appointed House than ever achieved by the elected House?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: I think it varies. I suspect the question about the non-white peer was not original to the questioner. However, I am variously asked about the role of the Bishops, which does seem to interest many in the audience. The other frequently asked question is ‘How do you become a Lord? (or ‘How did you become a Lord?’) which does appear to be asked out of genuine interest.

  4. Croft says:

    ‘When do you think the first non-white peer will be appointed?’

    Out by almost a century, Lord Sinha in 1919. Something of a unique designation – ‘Sinha, of Raipur in the Presidency of Bengal’ Still I always liked the td given to naval officers who, having little connection to land, had their baronetcys’ created ‘of the navy’

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: Many people are also surprised to find that the first non-white MPs were elected in the 19th Century.

      • Croft says:

        Considering the standard of civics and mandatory pre-GCSE history is this any surprise? How people are supposed to engage with parliament when the curriculum doesn’t guarantee people have an understanding of the history behind it and how it functions continues to exasperate me.

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