Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



Mr Trend

  80. Could I ask George Young, I am sure you have made some interesting points about trying to achieve a different balance between the Commons and the Lords because there is an issue in balancing Parliament with the Executive. Have you reached any view as to how that might be done and if you think it is desirable?
  (Sir George Young) I am slightly cautious about the proposition that because we are fully occupied in our House, the House of Lords might look at issues like constitutional reform and devolution. I would be slightly worried about sub-contracting some very important central issues to the second chamber. I do not mind doing it jointly but I am slightly cautious about subcontracting those particular issues to the Upper House. Shirley Williams mentioned treaties. I think if there was a joint discussion between the two Houses about the key issues and then an agreement as to who might do which and what level of co-operation would be, that would be fine. I would be very cautious about setting out in statute that these jobs are going to be done only by the Upper House and that the Lower House cannot do it. I hope I have indicated where my views lie on that one.

  81. If you have an Upper Chamber which is two thirds elected, it does have a new legitimacy and can reasonably expect to have a different share of responsibilities.
  (Sir George Young) By agreement. I think the main impact on its legitimacy would actually not be on the House of Commons, I hope it would be on the Government. They would find it less easy to disregard it because there would be a more legitimate, more authoritative, more valid chamber. So I see the impact on their validity not so much hitting us as hitting the Government.

  82. This is where in a sense we ran into the buffers with Lord Wakeham because while he said that he was a total democrat, he said also that the exercise that he had conducted, and by implication the legislation which has now come forward, was an exercise in the art of the possible and therefore we had to make the settlement within the parameters agreed by the Government. Surely that is an unsatisfactory position?
  (Sir George Young) I think he was saying that if you want to get the legislation through the Upper House there has to be something about the existing life Peers that has to be acceptable to them. I think that is a slightly different, in a sense, man management issue than the more serious constitutional issues that you are putting forward. I think he was answering as a Chief Whip: "How do you get this piece of legislation through if you are proposing involuntary euthanasia for a lot of elderly life Peers, political euthanasia?"

  83. Yes. Could I ask Lady Williams then, surely then the ball is in the Lords' court in this one?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Do you know, the reason that I keep reiterating, and I very much hope this Committee might reach a similar conclusion, that there really have to be some meetings between the two Houses before this matter is put in stone is because, I think, a great many life Peers would actually take seriously a view of an authoritative Commons Committee if that view was that there should be joint discussions and also the views of the Commons in such joint discussions. There is no question but that the House of Lords, almost without exception now, accepts that the House of Commons is the senior House and will listen closely to what it has to say. I agree with what Sir George Young has said about having to get it through the House but actually I think also that there are the lines of a probable compromise between elected and appointed Peers with some substantial increase in the share of elected Peers but it will not happen unless the Commons is seen to be taking seriously House of Lords reform as part of the whole structure of Parliament vis a vis the Executive on its own. If the House of Lords is, as it were, closed within its own interests and not open to the views of the Commons, which is the present situation, you will get very great resistance in the House of Lords, at the end of the day it will be hard to get any reforms through at all.

  84. The House of Lords will take an initiative in this and suggest that a Joint Committee be established.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) We have taken it over and over and over again and got absolutely nowhere.

  85. That is because the Government will not agree to it.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) The Government have three times said formally and actually from the Despatch Box that they were committed to the concept of, not only the concept, committed to a Joint Committee and committed to consultation under that Joint Committee between the Commons and the Lords and between the Leaders of parties in both. For some reason we do not fully understand, and if colleagues are interested you will see it all in questions in Hansard in the Lords towards the end of the last session in December, what happened was the Government seems to have made a decision that it regarded the Wakeham Commission as meeting the demands of the consultation and, therefore, there was no need for any further consultation with the Lords or between the Houses. We pressed then very hard for yesterday and today's debate, and got a commitment to a two day debate and a debate in the Commons but frankly that is not the same thing and I believe it is a useful additional way of discussing our relationships but it is not the same thing as a serious Joint Committee between the two Houses.
  (Sir George Young) My understanding was that there was disagreement on the agenda for the Joint Committee and the Government were not prepared to discuss compositional issues.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) That is correct.
  (Sir George Young) On that basis there was no agreement for a Joint Committee to go ahead in that the other parties wanted a Joint Committee but they wanted composition to be part of the agenda. That was why there was deadlock.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) That is absolutely correct.

  Chairman: I suspect we shall not want to be detained by the history of this.

  Mr Trend: I find it fascinating.


  86. I thought a dimension too was that it was very difficult to find out what the Conservative Party was in the business of doing or wanting and, therefore, there were not even the beginnings of an agreement that could be used to get a committee up and running.
  (Sir George Young) The Conservative Party was perfectly happy to sit on the Joint Committee as long as it was able to talk about composition. That would then have raised the question what the Conservative Party have said. I think the best thing for all parties to do on this, quite frankly, is to have a free vote. I can think of nothing worse than the two major parties dragooning their members to vote for something which we all know they do not agree with. I do not mind the Government having a view or the Conservative Party front bench having a view; I think it should be very lightly whipped otherwise we are simply going to increase disillusionment with the political process and institutions. The more one talks to colleagues the more it is that very firm views are held, they are different. I think the only way that you will get a settlement that sticks is if the House of Commons approaches it on the basis of a free vote.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Can I just say one word. I just very slightly disagree with what George has said on that one. You have got a whole new set of people now: a new Leader of the House of Lords, a new Leader in the House of Commons, new party leaders and so forth, my impression is that there is much more room for reaching some broad compromise on composition but there have not been any discussions since these new figures came on the scene. The only other thing I would say is that Lord Williams and Robin Cook have both agreed to some link between the Modernisation Committee of this House and the so-called Working Practices Committee in the Lords. What is missing in that—and they have agreed to such a link—is, as it were, the constitutional relationship between functions between the two Houses. That little bit is obviously a crucial little bit.

Mr Prentice

  87. On the Joint Committee, just clearing this up, I raised this issue with the Parliamentary Secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department last year, I wanted to know why the Joint Committee had not been set up. I was told that the Government had—and I quote—"made strenuous efforts to set up such a Committee, however it was not possible to reach agreement with the other main political parties as to terms of reference of the Joint Committee". So I am right in thinking the Government wanted the Joint Committee to look at how Wakeham could be implemented but did not want the Committee to look at composition and yet Wakeham makes recommendations, does it not, about composition? That seems very strange indeed but that is the position. There could be a Joint Committee set up but it could not consider composition. Can I move on to this question of the consensus because I am very interested in this. The Prime Minister says repeatedly that we are where we are because there is no discernable consensus out there. Sir George has mentioned a free vote as a way of testing opinion. Are there other ways in which we could try to find this consensus, perhaps by bringing in MORI to poll Members of Parliament or what?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Mr Prentice, can I just repeat what I said, and I knew the part that you played though frankly when you talk about functions without considering composition it does not make an awful lot of sense in my view. The Liberal Democrat position is the same as the Conservative, composition has to be part of the discussion. I would only repeat that my view is that it is going to be impossible to find a broad consensus. I think it needs a certain amount of negotiation to get there. I take a much more optimistic view than George does about that possibility. I think there is beginning to be a shift, at least among party leaders, towards the consent of some greater element of election than is in the Wakeham Commission. It may be that the Government simply does not want that matter to be raised.

  88. One other point about appointment in election. Can I ask Lady Williams, you told us the Liberal Democrats are in favour of a largely elected Upper House, why do we need appointed people at all if Select Committees in the Upper House are looking at a difficult issue? Why do they not just call on experts to come and give evidence?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) First of all, I should make it plain that we would have no further political appointments at all, at you probably know. We would replace all those elected Members. The reason we think that there is a case for 15 to 20 per cent is because what you get in the House of Lords, and it is an extremely useful part of the total, is what Sir George Young mentioned, some people who institutionally would be highly unlikely to run for an election. An example of that is leaders from the military forces, significant scientists, people of that kind. Robert Winston would not run for election but he has been a crucial Member of our House in terms of the whole discussion of stem cell research. If you had him simply as an expert, as somebody on tap for a Select Committee, the House of Lords as a whole, which then votes on a free vote on the stem cell issues, would not hear what he had to say. As things stand he actually is, in a sense, an expert witness to the House as a whole but as part of it he is listened to with possibly greater attention and concern than he otherwise would be. In other words, it is not only the expertise, it is also the nature of the man or woman who offers that expertise in terms of their own commitment to that subject, to civic society, whatever. We all understand that and, therefore, rate one expert in a rather different way from another.

  89. Can I put the same question to Sir George because you gave us a list of scientists, doctors, generals, academics, what about train drivers and, dare I say it, what about hairdressers? Why should people in those kinds of occupations be excluded from the appointed element of the Upper House?
  (Sir George Young) That is up to the Appointments Commission.

  90. No room for hairdressers.
  (Sir George Young) If they felt that the quality of debate and the role of the House of Lords would be added to by different members than the ones they appoint at the moment they are perfectly free to do that. I subscribe to the view that if you are discussing—as the House of Lords often does—medico-legal issues to do with stem cell research, what you want are some doctors, some scientists, some academics, perhaps some philosophers to shed light on that. If that is the role of the second chamber you would expect the Appointments Commission to appoint people who could add value to that debate.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Can I add they really must. I agree with you 100 per cent. I remember appointing a woman on welfare with four children to the National Consumer Council and everybody said "She cannot offer anything". She was an extraordinarily good member of that particular National Consumer Council. I think we need much more to look at representative people who have a different experience of life, of where the shoe pinches, in order to get a real picture of policy and the impact of legislation.


  91. Gordon I will bring you back in later. Just before we lose this particular area, we have had a letter from Lord Owen, not entirely unconnected to you historically.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Historically, even currently.

  92. He makes a distinction between voting and a voice, as he calls it. He thinks there should be elected and appointed members but only the elected people should vote. Is this an avenue that is fruitful?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) It is a perfectly rational argument. The reason I think I would not agree with it is because it would introduce the concept of two categories of Members of the Lords and I think that would be a mistake rather the way I think that treating part-time people and full-time people quite differently is a mistake. There is certainly an argument for it. I think it would make all the appointed people, as it were, a lesser breed and I think there is a strong argument for saying very often they are going to be extremely knowledgeable about the issues on which we have heard so, no, I would not be in favour of that but I do see it as another route.

  93. We should have the elected people and appointed people anyway so there would be two classes on your model.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) It would make them more like that if you also distinguish between who could vote and who could not vote. It would tend to suggest the appointed people were, in a sense, second class members.
  (Sir George Young) You end up, also, with one political party perhaps dominating the votes in the second chamber which you do not have if you have the independent people, the appointed people, voting.

  Chairman: Okay.

Kevin Brennan

  94. To follow up on that point. I apologise, Chairman, as usual I had a clash of Committees which was why I was late. We will have two categories of Members under the mixed Member system. Would you not envisage problems if it were the unelected Members who tipped the balance of the vote on a crucial issue over the wishes of the elected Members of the Lords? Would there not be questions about the legitimacy of such a decision?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) I think, Mr Brennan, I would answer that by saying that it is part of the whole issue of how far the Whips control the Upper House as well as this one. Let us be quite honest, if you look at the votes in the House of Lords, you will see that on many, many occasions Members of parties will either abstain or in some cases—rare cases—actually vote against their party, but deliberate abstention is not uncommon. For people to get up and speak against their party or even move amendments against their party is not uncommon either. I think, if I may say so, you are taking, in a sense, too closely party loyal a position than actually obtains in our House. I think, in fact, the presence of the experts would be such that you get less inclination to create solid party blocks than you get in the Commons. I do not see any move towards solid party blocks of that kind. To give an example, yesterday Lord Dahrendorf spoke openly against the policy of my party but it would be considered very odd in the House of Lords if I disciplined him for doing that. That is quite a common situation. It is a much looser and less disciplinary structure there and I think where Sir George Young is absolutely right, I agree with him, is that people do in fact behave rather differently after they get there and they are there for six months or so. They do not rely on party Whipping to bring about results to anything like the same extent.
  (Sir George Young) Historically, it is a House that has had two sorts of members, life Peers and hereditary Peers, and those two co-existed. I would regard it as ideal for those who were independent to have the final voice in the second chamber in resolving an issue where the two parties are in disagreement where, having listened to the debate without any political prejudices, they voted the way they thought the argument had been won. I would regard that as a virtue rather than a vice.

  Kevin Brennan: It seems to me in terms of the practicalities which we were discussing earlier on of getting the House of Lords reformed that there are at least three clear blockages of self interest. One is that there is a large number of MPs who are worried about a dilution in their power and influence if there were to be a large elected element in the second chamber. Secondly, there is the Government itself which is worried about the process of Lords' reform becoming bogged down and blocking its legislative programme, and there being a more effective, more legitimate House of Lords which could challenge the executive's authority in the longer term. Thirdly, there are the Lords themselves who are voting for their own redundancy. Do you think that it would be possible to overcome some of those blockages by developing a proposal which would produce essentially a pretty overwhelmingly elected House of Lords, but not necessarily from day one so that you could put off the fears of MPs by saying if it ever becomes that it will not be for some considerable time, and overcome the Government's worries by the fact that there will not be such a blockage in the proposal, and then the Lords would be facing either a more distant redundancy, if you like, or the turkeys would be offered a large amount of "cranberry sauce" to vote for Christmas, or "Cranborne" sauce as it has been called? In other words, is it not possible that there could be a more organic solution that does not produce what we want on day one but naturally grows into that without the need for further legislation?


  95. Organic turkeys!
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Let me make one comment on your two further points and then the third one. On the issue of Members of Parliament being concerned about the House of Lords, forgive me for repeating this but I really think that is to look in the wrong direction. You have the power to determine whether the Government has your confidence or not, you have the power over money Bills, you have the power over public expenditure Bills. There is only one area where the House of Lords has any power to override the Commons which is that there cannot be more than a five-year term between parliaments.

Kevin Brennan

  96. On that very point, do you think there is any need to define that further in statute or is the existing requirement, the Parliament Act etcetera, sufficient to overcome that fear?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) As part of the constitutional settlement I would like to see a very limited number of things, one of them being human rights where both chambers will have to agree to any change. That is the only change I would make to the structures we have at the present time. If you have a constitutional settlement, obviously the five-year limit would come into it as part of that settlement. Going back to your questions very briefly, on the first one I really think that MPs have nothing to fear from the House of Lords and I think they have a great deal to fear from the power of the executive, and that is reflected in public attitudes towards our respective chambers which tend to be rather dismissive of both of us. I will not go into the second question but I will go into the third one. You are absolutely right, and we believe the way to bring about an elected majority is in tranches. We would not have the whole lot in 2004. We would have a tranche in 2004 and then another tranche in 2009, with at least four-year periods between, and that would mean, first, that death removes about 90 Peers between parliaments, the rate of attrition is about 80 a year among life Peers, so that 90 go. We have got the 92 Weatherill Peers and we are not quarrelling with them going. Some may come back but they will be gone as Weatherill Peers so, in fact, you do not get a very big increase in numbers and if you do associate it with not too much cranberry sauce but simply some re-settlement grants for people who retire after the age of 70, then I think you come back to 600 falling to 500 falling to 400 by about 2013, so it is a fairly slow process but it is one that I think both Houses could adapt to.

  97. One major concern that the Government has, as I understand it at least, is that you cannot have a great number of elected Peers because the size of the House of Lords, at least in the interim (and we are talking about a process of attrition) would be absurdly large. In what you have just described what would be the size at the beginning of that period?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) It is 700 now. On this proposal there would be a very slight increase of about 25, just at the first period when you have not got life Peers dying. You have got the increase between 92, which is the Weatherill Peers, and 20 which is the tranche of elected members suggested by Wakeham—they suggest 120, we suggest two tranches, not one—and you then can see a quite rapid fall as life Peers (plus some encouragement to retire for those over 70) begin to drop off. You do not have any more political appointments and that is the key to it. Could I mention what you said about the Government being concerned that legislation was being held up. Again let me be very blunt about this—we see and you see Bills coming back year after year from departments who have already got one Act and they then come back with another Bill. Education is a perfect example. We have had 11 Education Bills in as many years. I must say, having been interested in education, that a lot of those Bills could have been put together in one important Act if they had been properly thought through, properly drafted, and had a proper pre-legislative process. We have got far too much bad legislation—and that is addressed as much to the Conservatives as Labour—and it is not doing anybody any good.
  (Sir George Young) Can I just said a word on your first blockage which is Members' self interest. The way Wakeham addressed this gave members quite a lot of confidence and I think this proposal has removed much of that confidence. Wakeham was very anxious that the elected members to the upper chamber should not use that as a springboard to a career in our House. He proposed one 15-year term and then you could not come down to our House. The Government has not accepted those recommendations and has suggested five or ten-year terms for the upper House and you can get re-elected. I think the Wakeham proposals are a better answer to your first question than the Government's. I would be worried if in the House of Lords people were having to be re-elected. At the moment you have not got that, under Wakeham you would not get that, under the Government you would have that, and I think that would change the tone of the debates or the nature of some of the speeches in the House of Lords, if for the first time they were pitched at a prospective electorate. On the second point, if I were the government business manager, I would be quite worried about all of this because there has been some slippage in the programme because of the terrorism legislation, and the prospect of Lords' reform on an unagreed basis going backwards and forwards and dogging this session and the next would terrify the business managers, and I think those who want no change at all use will use the argument that you have just deployed for staying where we are with the 91 hereditary Peers, which are the grit in the oyster but not producing the pearl.

  98. On a final point if I may chair, have either of you got any concern about the method of election to, Sir George, you called it the "upper" House and you also said the "senior" House at one point—and I am not sure how this fits in with this idea that the Commons remains the primacy in all of this so perhaps we have to think about the terminology? Have you got any concern, as some MPs have expressed to me, that if you elect the House of Lords (or whatever we are going to call it) by, for example, STV that you will get some of the problems that have emerged in the devolved Assembly in Wales and the Scottish Parliament of having people acting as second constituency type of politicians? In that case it is because they have list members who range over small, sub-regional areas. If you had STV constituencies electing a number of the members of the House of Lords would they not then have this terrible urge to dabble in constituency issues when really that is not role of a strategic second chamber?
  (Sir George Young) If you do this you need open lists and not closed lists and you need large constituencies to avoid them treading on the same patches as the members and as you move into larger constituencies so it becomes more difficult to get the sort of conflict you mention because the constituencies are so big. Also, if they are not having to go to the electorate they do not need to build that bond with the electorate that the rest of us have to do. If you make it quite clear what the function of the second chamber is and that these are not constituency MPs dealing with the day-to-day issues we all deal with, you will overcome those particular sensitivities which are inevitable with the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament because both members are dealing with the bread and butter issues and they have got to get re-elected again and they have got smaller constituencies.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  99. Can I follow on from what Kevin was saying about elections because what you are suggesting is 75 per cent elected, is it, Lady Williams?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) I said 80 per cent.

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