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!