Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 122)



  120. Do you think that the whole agenda of reform of the House of Lords should be taken on board over what everybody recognises as the need to re-engage the British public with the democratic processes in this country?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Ideally not. If I were all powerful, I would decree a series of seminars about the constitutional settlement for the UK, and I would use it as part of citizenship education with sixth-formers and colleges of FE and all the rest of it. That is what I would like to see, but it is not going to happen. So moving away from the ideal to engage the British public in every possible way, I think we have to think in terms of a proposal to see how to re-engage them as far as we can. To give you one example, I think one of the things we could do with pre-legislative scrutiny is publish on the Internet draft Bills before government completely committed to them and then invite people to put forward their own amendments to that Bill, get schools engaged in trying to work out amendments, put them in, propose them, discuss with the interest groups whether the Bill met the need as they see it in their particular area, which might be children's care or many other things. I think we should make legislation an open process and if the House of Commons could come in through and around pre-legislative scrutiny to take into account submissions made by the public, interest groups, NGOs, I think we would have a much more exciting system than we have, and the way to do that is to open the doors to the public to take part in legislation before the government of the day becomes committed. Once it is committed, which is the whole trouble at the moment, it does not like to yield any ground at all because it may make ministers seem weak to concede, even if they know that they are wrong.
  (Sir George Young) Can I give a short and slightly different answer. I do not think there is any way the majority of our electorate are going to engage in the debate about the reform of the second chamber, however, if they read in the press that the second chamber has been reformed in a way that leaves it wholly appointed and not elected, those that are interested will take an even more cynical view of the political process and it will make all our jobs more difficult.

  121. I wanted to link that with earlier comments from both of you about the need for a joint committee of both Houses. Would you agree that actually the very process by which the reform is established is also going to be important in terms of participation by the public, if you like. I think, Sir George, you flagged up the dangers of perhaps not having the right process if it all got very messy between the two Houses. What are the dangers of not having something as strong as a joint committee or something similar to really push this process forward?
  (Sir George Young) The reason I pause is because I am not sure that a joint committee is going to solve this. If you set up a joint committee and it sits for six months I do not know if at the end of the six months this House and the other House would be any closer to a solution. It may be, but I pause and wonder whether we have not crossed that bridge. We are going to get a draft Bill and I wonder whether that is not the basis on which we move forward to find a solution rather than passing it off to a joint committee. I do not dismiss it but I am slightly cautious at this stage.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) What you could have is three or four meetings between the two Houses between the leaders, in particular Williams and Robin Cook in this House, and then a very small group of parties of the two Houses to consider whether there is a basis for compromise. I happen to think there is. I think it would be a tragedy to go straight on as if there were not when there might be.


  122. Is it your sense, Lady Williams, that the existing membership of the House of Lords could, even after we have had all these interesting discussions, be prevailed upon to assent to a predeterminant elected second chamber?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) I think I would be lucky to get my sort of figure. George's proposal is a very sensible one, the move towards an area where the Commons would accept broadly a proportion which they think would be reasonably fair—one-third/two-thirds, just over half and half. I think, as I said before, that the Commons' view on this would be extremely powerful with many Peers. I think the thing they will resist is being chopped off at the toes just because they happen to be life Peers and they carry with them a commitment for life peerage. I do believe that some system of retirement plus the strong suggestion from the Commons that there ought to be an elected majority might well carry the upper House.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. We shall have to end. I am very mindful of George Young's remark about those who will see all the grit in the oyster and enjoy seeing the grit in the oyster and yet thereby it prevents us getting the pearl, I think you have helped us to glimpse the pearl at least this morning. Thank you very much indeed.

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