Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 68 - 79)




  68. Could I move the Committee on to the second half of our proceedings and welcome our two new witnesses in the shape of Sir George Young, a distinguished Member of this House, and Lady Williams, who is a distinguished Member of the other House having been a distinguished Member of this House. We wanted very much to hear from both of you on the whole question of the House of Lords reform issue. I do not know if either of you would like to say anything by way of introduction or whether you would just like us to fire on.

  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) If I could have just five minutes.

  69. We could not do five minutes but we could do two or three minutes.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) In that case you had better hold on to your sleds. Our position is straight forward in that it makes no sense to try to reform the House of Lords without trying to reform Parliament as a whole. We are extremely troubled by the fact that there have been virtually no meetings between the two Houses or the Leaders of parties of the two Houses about an issue which we regard as overriding. The reason we regard it as overriding is because we think that the accountability of the executive of any party to Parliament is now extremely weak. It should be strengthened and it can only be strengthened if the House of Commons and the House of Lords are seen together with the House of Lords, of course, understanding its role to be subordinate but complementary to the House of Commons. We do not know how to be complementary unless we have a chance to discuss with the House of Commons in a formal structure. Secondly, we think this comes within the envelope of a longer constitutional settlement. We think the United Kingdom is moving, little by little, patch by patch, towards a constitutional settlement, the embodiment of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law, the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, the beginning of a regional assembly structure, all of those suggest that we are in fact on the way to some kind of a new constitutional settlement but as a country we do not address it. We have not seriously thought about how to put it together so everything that we are going to say is going to be in that particular context. Number three, we think the House of Lords is primarily a revising scrutiny chamber. We think the responsibility of the Commons in respect of constituency responsibilities and also of the growing power which we very much welcome of Select Committees means that MPs have less and less time to go through the grinding job of scrutinising line by line and in some cases simply do not have the opportunity to do it, as to with the Counter Terrorism Bill of last month. For all these reasons we think it is crucial that most major Bills should go through pre-legislative scrutiny. They should then be considered very carefully with committees not taking votes but at report stage which is long enough after the committee stage to be considered in terms of major amendments. On secondary legislation, we would like to see a right to amend only—which does not exist at the moment—those Statutory Instruments which are defined by the proposed new Statutory Instruments Committee, which is in the Government's White Paper as being of such importance they should come before one House or the other. If they see it as that important it ought to be possible to amend such Statutory Instruments. I will not go on and on. The final point I will make is about composition. As you probably know, my party and I are committed to the idea of a substantial majority, by which we mean virtually 75 to 80 per cent of all appointments being abolished, specifically political appointments, and replaced by a system of election linked to the regions. We would see, therefore, probably a balance of, say, 15 to 20 per cent, we are not dogmatic on the exact number, of independents appointed by the Appointments Commission to serve as in some ways a balanced wheel for the House of Lords. I will be happy to say more about any of that.

  70. Thank you very much. Sir George?
  (Sir George Young) Just two footnotes. I was in the Upper House when Lady Williams made her speech and she made the point about reform of the House of Lords being part of a wider reformed Parliament. It received support from a lot of people, many of whom want nothing to happen at all and see linking the House of Lords reform to broader reform as a reason for staying with the status quo. So I just put a note of caution against seeking to link House of Lords reform with the broader reform of this House or Parliament as a whole. The other point, having stood at the back of the Upper House and then looked through Hansard, I was struck by the strength of feeling against election and the number of Peers who put that point of view at a time when in our House opinion is moving the other way. I just came away rather alarmed that there was going to be a problem not just within the parties, which we know about, but actually between the two Houses. I think there needs to be some serious thought applied as to how we are going to manage the process and avoid a battle between the two Houses on its composition ending in deadlock.

  71. I think they are extremely interesting opening gambits. If I could start. Could I ask you both broadly on this question of power, power rather than powers perhaps. What I mean by that is the Royal Commission and the Government's position seems to be that nothing must happen that alters existing relationships in terms of the pre-eminence of the House of Commons. I wonder if that does not rather duck a fundamental issue which is that either we think there need to be more effective checks on what goes on in the Commons or there does not. If there does, do we think the Lords ought to be part of those checks, in which case we clearly want a Lords which is even more powerful than it is now. I think this is something we have to get hold of right at the outset, whether that is what we are doing. This is very much part of, Lady Williams, your argument about the broader constitutional position here. What would be your view on that?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Chairman, let me be blunt. I think personally that the way in which the White Paper continually addresses the relationship between the two Houses is frankly a way of escaping the much more important question which is the relationship of the two Houses to the Executive. I think it is simply, if I may say so, something of an attempt to try to draw attention away from that crucial issue because executives of any colour—I do not care whether they are blue, yellow or red—always have the characteristic of not wishing to see a legislature that is effective in terms of their accountability. It is just the nature of Government to be like that. It is a nuisance to ministers to actually be accountable to Parliament, and having been a minister for many years I speak of what I know. So I believe that it is absolutely crucial to strengthen the legislature and I think the legislature has got to see itself as having a common interest in doing this and therefore I regard that whole part of the White Paper as essentially a way of avoiding what to me is the overarching issue. With regard to what you say about power and powers I think, therefore, that there is a great deal to be said for the two Houses discussing how best to scrutinise and question Bills as they come through. I mentioned pre-legislative scrutiny and I think that could well happen in either House or both Houses or even the two Houses together, very radical, why not? The other point I want to make strongly is that in my view there is a whole area of power or, if you like, functions of scrutiny and accountability which is hardly touched upon in the United Kingdom, and that of course is the area of matters which fall under the Royal Prerogative. There is no argument for so much falling under the Royal Prerogative. If I can give the Committee just two quick examples. Firstly, neither of our Houses is actually asked to debate or discuss Treaties before they are signed under the Royal Prerogative by the Executive yet many of our younger constituents are more interested in the operations of the World Trade Organisation than they are in some remote issue about common hold and leasehold and they do not have the opportunity to see that passing through Parliament, it just does not pass through Parliament. A great many pieces of legislation about, for example, weapons of mass destruction are embodied in protocols and treaties, we do not discuss them, except under the heading of foreign affairs debates. The final big area of Royal Prerogative is the whole area of devolved power to Government agencies and we all know you do not get replies from Government agencies, you get replies from the Minister to "please go to the Strategic Rail Authority" and the Strategic Rail Authority quite often says "Well, it is not our business to answer your questions". It is a huge evasion of accountability. So I think the Royal Prerogative area should be brought under the power of the two Houses and the two Houses should discuss how best to deliver this power. I would prefer to see a Joint Committee on treaties than a Lords Committee on treaties but I would much rather see a Lords Committee on treaties than no Committee on treaties.

  72. Sir George?
  (Sir George Young) I would draw a distinction between nominal powers and effective powers. I think the nominal powers are broadly right and should stay the same. I think the effective power of the second chamber would be greater if it had more authority, more legitimacy, more validity. I think the Government would then find it more difficult to disregard it in the way that it does at the moment and I think that moves on to an issue you may want to tackle later, how you compose it. I agree with Lady Williams that the Government seek to portray this as a two dimensional contest, if one body loses power the other one must gain power. Actually it is a multi-dimensional contest and the main contest is between Parliament and the Executive and the Lords and the Commons are partners not rivals in that. That is actually the dimension which matters most. The final point is I am amazed at the lack of liaison between the two Houses. There are small party groups, single issue groups which are quite effective, and some party links; how the crossbenchers in the Upper House link with our House, I am not quite sure. We have, however, a very effective Liaison Committee in our House, I am not quite sure what the House of Lords has but if they have a Liaison Committee perhaps those two Liaison Committees ought to get in touch with each other, see if there is a common agenda that they could begin to work through to increase the effectiveness of the two chambers collectively.

  73. When I listened to Lady Williams and listened to the way in which you want to give more jobs to the Lords, because these are jobs that are not being done in our constitution, and you make a very strong case for the Lords to be the place where they might be done, the further down that road that you go, do you not quickly run up against what is fundamental to the Royal Commission's position and the Government's position that this must be essentially a part-time institution?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Yes, you do run up against that. Incidentally, I overheard the last question that you put to Lord Wakeham. I do not see that problem to be honest with you. If the Committee likes we will give it a detailed actuarial proposal that we are putting forward as to how one can bring the House of Lords down to about 350 to 400 without actually having to bring in drastic measures to get rid of the existing Peers. We think it can be done by a mixture of actuarial tables and possibly a resettlement round which would save the Government money because it would save it the allowances it would otherwise have to pay. We have shown all that and we can happily put it to your Committee. What we believe, however, is that as you move towards a House of 350 to 400, given that we are now working I think longer than any other legislature in Europe, except yourselves, we have got to face the fact that we are probably going to have something of more full-time Members of the House, the elected Members are likely to be full-time, and that means, I think, one will have to consider moving away from allowances, which incidentally are wide open to misuse, in the direction of probably a fairly modest salary, along the lines of the salaries paid to, for example, the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament.

  74. Just to get a run in a different direction. I know you have told us, Lady Williams, you are in favour of an overwhelmingly elected second chamber and my understanding is, Sir George, that you are in that sort of territory too. Therefore, I put to both of you as people who are in a broad position the argument that we have heard strongly this morning from Lord Wakeham, it is a powerful argument, that if we do that we shall lose all kinds of people of expertise and independents who will not come through either any kind of party list system and that all the kinds of attributes that we saw during the Terrorism Bill, for example, will be gone to the House because these people will not come through that route. We shall finish up with a clone of the House of Commons, as Lord Wakeham said controlled by the Whips, and we shall be worse off rather than better off.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) It is a serious argument. I think in the end this Committee is going to have to choose because on the other side, of course, there is by the electorate a growing feeling that if you have no substantial elected second chamber it does not have the legitimacy or validity it should have. You probably are well aware in this Committee of the opinion poll findings that something like 71 per cent of the public want an elected House, that 97 per cent believe that to have an overwhelmingly appointed House is not acceptable and the media themselves, of course, spend a great deal of time indicating that Tony's cronies or IDS's, I do not know, are somehow a form of institutional corruption.

  75. Sorry to interrupt. If you ask the question, as ever it is a question, is it not, "Do you want a second chamber formed in the image of the first chamber, do you want a House of Lords like the House of Commons, controlled by the Whips", what would the answer be?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Chairman, I was about to answer that. I just wanted to make the first point first, I think, quite quickly, that it does not follow at all. First of all, you want long terms. We believe that there should be a term of at least ten years, renewable once. That gives people a great deal of independence as they move towards the whole of the middle of their term and onwards, Senators compared with Congressmen are a very good example of that. Secondly, we think it should be by a fixed term, linked to the European Parliament. Thirdly, we think it should be by a form of PR which does not for a moment accept the system of closed lists. So you would have to have STV and an open list system, perfectly possible to do. Fourthly, we think that there should be, as I have said, a 15 to 20 per cent element of people appointed by the Appointments Commission because of their expertise or because of, in some cases, ethnic background because the PR system, like the first past the post system, has a better chance. It may not throw up enough ethnic minority Members of the House of Lords to be representative of the community as a whole and we think that is extremely important.
  (Sir George Young) My reply is a slightly different one and that is that people behave differently in different chambers. If you are elected to the House of Commons and you are facing re-election and you are in a highly political environment, you behave in one way. If you get translated to the Upper House you behave in a different way, although you are the same person.

  76. You mean you become decent and civilised.
  (Sir George Young) I think Lord Wakeham and Lord Hurd are good examples of that. Perhaps the most effective performer in the Upper House in recent years, from my party, was John Mackie, who started off in our House. So I do not accept the argument that Lord Longford put two years ago which is that if you have elected Members of the House of Lords you get the dregs. If you look at the Conservative Party Front Bench in the Upper House, they would all have been quite happy to have a gentle encounter with the electorate as proposed by Lord Wakeham. I would have one third appointed. I think there is value added to the Upper House by having the scientists, the generals, the civil servants, the doctors, the academics. If you have one third appointed and two thirds elected, you avoid any one party dominating it. I think that is the right balance, although I am open to persuasion. I do not accept the argument that if you have a distinctive chamber with distinctive functions, people who come from one Chamber will behave exactly as they did in the first chamber in the second one. I think history tells us the opposite. So I just do not accept that argument.

  77. Nor the Lord Wakeham argument which says it will be the fourth eleven, to use his phrase, they have failed to become MPs, they have failed to become MEPs, they have failed to become all kinds of things so they finish up in the House of Lords.
  (Sir George Young) I do not accept that. I can see it is an argument. We will only know when it actually happens. There are not going to be very many of them for each party and if you elect them every five years there will be even fewer so I think there will be a lot of competition for what will be a very prestigious job. I will be amazed if some very attractive, very talented people did not come forward from all three main parties to seek nomination and election to that post.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Can I just underline the importance of no overall majority. To me the miracle of the House of Lords compared with having been in the Commons for many years is that if you do not know what the outcome is going to be, and you really do not in lots of cases, you do actually have to listen to the debate, it makes a lot of difference.

  78. It would be a culture shock for all of us.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Yes.

Mr Prentice

  79. There is not a whipping system in the House of Lords?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Yes, but it is a very gentle whipping system. What basically happens is they impose a three line whip if they really care terribly about the issue and roughly half the Members show up but it is rather more in our party, to make it tougher for them. Generally speaking, quite honestly, no it is not like the whipping system in the Commons but there are some signs of it beginning to move in that direction I think.

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