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Government sources have stated that a peerage for Dr John Sentamu is “imminent” after the initial decision to not grant one to him was met with widespread criticism. Sentamu, the former Archbishop of York, was the first black archbishop in British history.
The initial move to not grant a peerage evoked strong reactions, as it was seen to breach a long-standing custom that archbishops are granted life peerages upon retirement. The snub was particularly controversial as the Archbishop of York is one of the most senior bishops in the Church of England, second only to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Sentamu retired as the Archbishop of York in June, and upon retirement, was told that he would be given a peerage. However, the government did not find room for him when they announced their honours list in July.
Initially, government sources had attributed the decision to the need to minimise the number of additional peers. However, that argument has been roundly criticised in light of the fact that the Prime Minister’s brother and former Minister of State for Universities, Jo Johnson, was among those to have been handed a peerage in the latest list.
The bipartisan criticisms have come from the likes of David Davis, the former Conservative Minister, who Tweeted, “It cannot claim it needs to limit the size of the Lords whilst elevating Boris’s brother,” and David Lammy, the Shadow Justice Secretary, said that the decision was an example of “blatant institutional prejudice”, pointing out that the Government had found room for the likes of Sir Ian Botham and Claire Fox.
Since facing criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, Downing Street has appeared to have U-turned again and sought to clarify that the delay was only due to a procedural hold-up within the House of Lords Appointments Commission. A No 10 spokesman has since stated that the process of Sentamu’s appointment was “well under way.”
This incident has reignited debate concerning the peerage system, particularly the appointment of peers. It is perceived by many as not being meritocratic and not reflective of the diversity of the general population. The latest list of new peers was criticised by some as highlighting the flaws of this system, with Sir Ian Botham and Evgeny Lebedev seen as some controversial names. Their appointments were viewed as stemming from their vocal support for Brexit and close relationship with the Prime Minister, respectively. The government’s decision to break another convention and not grant a peerage to the outgoing Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, served to add fuel to fire to the argument that peers were appointed based on loyalty to the government rather than merit.
Questions about diversity and fair representation in the House of Lords have also been raised by the fact that none of the 36 granted a peerage in July’s list were Black. According to Operation Black Vote, only 12 peers are of Black heritage. This accounts for 1.51% of its membership, when the 2011 Census shows that the Black population accounts for 3% of the total population in the United Kingdom.
The argument in favour of the current system for appointing peers is that it brings a wide range of expertise and skills into the legislative process rather than limiting its composition to politicians. The House of Lords counts Lord Pannick and Lord Broers among its members. As crossbench barristers and electrical engineers respectively, they can bring in their diverse knowledge to the legislative process.
The Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne argues that the public would be deprived of the judgment of these “very valuable” peers under an elected system, where it is more likely that partisan politicians would take those seats. Appointed peers also have the advantage of not having to worry about electoral consequences when fulfilling their duties. Oborne states that an elected House of Lords would not have the courage to stand up against public opinion.
Whilst the government now appears to have reversed its decision to omit Sentamu, it is unlikely that this will cool down criticisms of the system anytime soon.