Examination of Witnesses (Questions 123
THURSDAY 17 JANUARY 2002
123. I thank our two witnesses this afternoon
for coming along and contributing to this rather intensive inquiry
on proposals for reform of the second chamber. We are delighted
to have Lord Lipsey, a very distinguished member of the Upper
House with a good deal of knowledge of this place too, and Lord
Norton, again a distinguished member of the Upper House, a distinguished
political scientist and someone who chairs the Constitution Committee
in the House of Lords. We look forward to sitting at your joint
feet for a little while this afternoon. You would like to make
a statement. Perhaps Lord Lipsey would start?
(Lord Lipsey) Thank you, Chairman, and
for inviting me again. I find my sessions with this committee
are most entertaining and productive to the things I do in that
strange world that I now inhabit. I am here as a representative
of a rare species, one that can see some virtue in the Government's
proposals on Lords' reform. I think I spotted one other non-ministerial
supporter in the 80-odd Lords who spoke in our debate on the subject
last week, though none in the Commons. As one who can see virtue,
can I make three very brief points? First, though I can support
most of what the Government is proposing, I cannot for the life
of me understand why they have gone for the regional lists as
a way of choosing the elected element. This is to invite the charge
that they want a party-poodle second chamber. A much more appropriate
system of election for the Lords, and I speak here as a member
of the Jenkins Committee on the Electoral system, would be the
single transferable vote which enables voters to split their vote
between parties and individuals. This could be introduced in an
appropriate number of constituencies based on the list of 80 suggested
in the Jenkins Report. I set out in more detail notes on this
in the memorandum that I have sent to the Committee. Secondly,
I believe that far too much attention has been given to matters
of membership and composition of the Lords and too little to matters
of procedure. The aim, and I think we are agreed on this, is to
create an effective essentially revising chamber. The Lords is
not that now, not because of its composition but because of its
antediluvian procedures. In particular, effective revision will
not take place while committee stages are held on the floor of
the House among a handful of interested peers whilst hundreds
more lurk about the building waiting to vote on matters about
which they neither know nor care when the bell goes and the whips
instruct. Thirdly, in politics it is generally wise to recognise
the dead duck when you see it on its back in parliament with its
legs in the air. If the Government ploughs ahead with proposals
based on its current proposalsand, as I say, I do see some
virtue in those proposalsthey are unlikely to get through
Parliament, at least without doing terrible collateral damage
to the rest of its legislative proposals. The Lords can inflict
this, even if your House decides not to. Stage one of Lords reform
required a bill of only half a dozen clauses, but is still took
up 12 days in the House of Lords. We need consensus. The difficulty
we have is that most MPs, from what I read, want more election,
whilst most peers want less. My own solution would be to refer
the matter to a joint committee of both houses, as the Government
proposed in its 1997 general election but not its 2001 election
manifesto, and for the Government to lift its objectionwhich
I understood at the timeto such a joint committee discussing
composition. In the meantime, since there is virtually complete
consensus that heredity is not an appropriate way of choosing
a legislative house, it would seem sensible to introduce a short
bill which would provide the euthanasia for hereditary peerage.
124. Thank you very much indeed. Let us pass
immediately to Lord Norton.
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) May I also thank
you for inviting me. I should stress I speak solely in a personal
capacity and therefore the view I shall express is completely
united. The only point I would make is to take the present second
chamber as our starting point. I believe, if you look at what
it does, it does add some value to the political process because
it fulfils functions that are qualitatively distinctive to those
of the first chamber and it performs them tolerably well, for
several reasons. I frankly disagree with what Lord Lipsey has
said. There are some problems with procedures which I suspect
members of the Commons would empathise with, on what has been
said, but in other areas the procedures are superior. That is
just one of several reasons why it is able to do the job that
it does. So it adds value. That is my starting point. Therefore,
if you want to move from the present situation, you have got to
demonstrate that the alternatives add value to the same extent
or more so than the present second chamber. None of the alternatives
on offer, as far as I can see, do that. The arguments, it strikes
me, are built on shifting sandsshifting in the sense that
they tend not to be consistent in terms of the justification,
and sand in the sense that they tend to be lacking in depth. As
you know, Mr Chairman, academics tend to proceed by way of research
and then draw conclusions based on that research. Politics is
very similar except that the research stage tends to be absent.
I think you get that on Lords reform. Everybody is coming up with
their conclusions, so people are throwing numbers into the equation
and things like that, without standing back and researching the
topic, and even thinking through what is the justification and
how they would define the concepts that are being thrown around,
most of which are contested. People seem to see it on the basis
that they are a given, and they are not. So, I think if you are
to move from the present situation, in which I see benefit, then
you have got to demonstrate that the alternatives will deliver
more benefits than the existing arrangements, and I do not think
they do that. The White Paper certainly does not do that and I
do not think any of the other alternatives do it either.
125. Thank you very much. Of course what I omitted
to say at the beginning was that one of you represents the Labour
interest and we have the Conservative interest in the House of
Lords. That is a rather interesting mission, and we have to work
out which is which as we go along.
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I am drawn from the
Conservative interest. You said "represents" and of
course, as you know, there are different definitions of "representation".
It depends which definition you are taking.
126. Could I start things off like this, and
perhaps start with Lord Lipsey? If I am right, you have been one
of the few people in this whole debate who moved position at all,
as I understand it. You were, on the whole, broadly supportive
of the Government's position at one time and have now decided
or accepted that some elective element is probably either right
or going to happen.
(Lord Lipsey) The Government proposals include an
elective element, a 20 per cent elective element. I do not think
the numbers issue is about that. The composition is a second order
question, my view is that those who are elected, are really not
experts in what should be an expert House.
127. May I interrupt you? The reason I put it
in the way that I did, and I am sorry if I did not put it quite
right, is that people have been struggling getting submissions
to us and almost everybody simply re-plays positions that they
have taken over the years and there are not many signs of learning,
thinking or movement going on. I was simply struck by the fact
that, as I understood it, you had moved and I wanted merely to
know why and the direction.
(Lord Lipsey) If the Government's proposals had been
met with universal acclaim, I would have been quite happy with
most of themI have drawn one exception that I do not much
likeand that would have been fine. The process of constitutional
change is not done in great leaps; it should not be done just
at the whim of mighty men, even as mighty as Lord Irvine, for
example. It really wants to be thought through and proceeded with
in so far as it is possible on the basis of a consensus. The simple
truth is that there is no consensus around the proposals the Government
has put forward. I thought, when the Wakeham Committee put forward
those proposals, that then would attract consensus, but that has
not happened. I am not saying I am glad the duck is dead but I
just do not see much point in proceeding as if it was still quacking.
128. Let me stay with you for a second. The
very interesting paper you have given us was all about the form
of election and you have argued for the single transferrable vote
form of election. This was something that was not recommended
by the Royal Commission and certainly not by the Government. I
wonder why you think it has to be an STV system. I wonder in particular
what you think the difference in practice will be between a STV
system and a genuine own party list system.
(Lord Lipsey) I speak as somebody who thought STV
was quite wrong in the Commons because if you have STV in the
Commons, you would lose constituencies, which I think is its chief
glory of the present system we have for the House of Commons.
Indeed, it is the only reason the House of Commons retains credibility
of voting at all, since they all love you as individual members,
even if they do not like the institution to which you belong.
The Lords is a very different place. For one thing, you are not
looking for constituency representation. In fact, it would be
a disaster to have constituency representation in the Lords because
then you would get mere competition between Lords members and
Commons members. Let us face it, what you would get is a load
of Lords members who were competing with Commons constituency
MPs in order to supplant sitting members at the first possible
opportunity. There are some examples of that. For example in New
Zealand, that was a disaster. What you want in the Lords is a
much more lively representative group. Think about the list system;
leave aside open versus closed, which is a narrow point. A list
system forces the elector to cast all his votes for one party.
I think there are many electors who might say, "Well, I would
like four Conservatives but also I have got very strong green
interests, so I would like to cast one of my votes for an excellent
local green with whom I share many views". I can see no reason
at all, apart from narrow party interest, why a voter in those
circumstances in the Lords, with wide representation, should be
prevented by the system from doing that and making for more plural
representation of parties in the Lords. I, for one, would think
that very welcome.
129. Above all else, you are a political realist,
which is why you moved in that direction, and you have told us
about dead ducks and feet in the air and all that. What perplexes
me about this is that in a situation where the parties, and certainly
the governing party, are already anxious about election and are
setting about extending it, if you offer them a system which gives
them less control over that elective process because you insert
STV, will that not make them even more anxious about this direction?
(Lord Lipsey) I think there are two answers. First
of all, they are proposing STV for Northern Ireland representatives.
It is very curious to have two electoral systems in one body.
I do not think I have ever come across that before. Secondly,
the Government must choose. It can be a control freak, as you
say, and want complete control over everybody, or it can respond
to one thing on which everybody is absolutely unanimous: list
systems are not acceptable for this particular body. If the Government
wants to go on taking that view, I believe it will be defeated
in the Lords on that proposition. I hope very much it might be
defeated in the Commons. To be honest, I do not think either the
Royal Commission or the Government has thought through this particular
bit. Originally, to be fair, neither had I, being against STV
in many elections, and it was only when I sat down hard and thought
about an alternative that I realised there was an alternative.
I do not despair of them doing the right thing for once.
130. Let me turn briefly, before handing over
to Lord Norton, to this. Obviously I cannot resist the question
which says: you are the great Conservative constitution authority.
You wrote the report on parliamentary reform for the Conservative
party, but last year. As I understand it, and tell me if I am
wrong, in the past you were someone in favour of essentially an
appointed second chamber. Why has your constitutional wisdom been
so comprehensively rejected by your party?
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) You are asking the
wrong person because you would have to ask the party if they are
rejecting it. I stick by my views, in which I have been quite
consistent. In your earlier question you were implying that there
had not been much change in perceptions. There has been a lot.
131. Let us put it round the other way. Coming
from the direction which you do, give us your view on what you
are finding in attitudes?
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) What seems to be
proposed is a largely elected second chamber. I cannot quite see
what the benefit of that is. I have always argued that the present
system, or rather the present relationship, present arrangements,
of the chamber is very appropriate to our political processes.
It delivers benefits and I think once you move in the direction
of election, you start to deliver disbenefits to the political
system. I have been quite consistent in that view. If it is a
small element of election, I cannot see it is going to deliver
much. If it is a small percentage, I think it is probably silly.
A large percentage, with a majority of members elected, I think
is potentially dangerous.
132. Should not the fact that most of the evidence
suggests that the people, if I can put it that way, think that
most people in the second chamber ought to have the legitimacy
that comes from election count on the constitution?
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I would challenge
that in two respects as well as then coming on to the terminology
that is then employed. First of all, it depends on the question
you are asked. You can say that you do think the second chamber
should be elected. You are not going to get people saying "no"
unless they get a chance perhaps to explain why. That is a natural
instinct. I suspect, if you put the question another way, which
is "would you like another tier of elected politicians?"
you would probably get a slightly more negative response. It depends,
I think, on how you put the question. If you look at some of the
ICM poll questions from last December, when you got variations
to different questions put, then you got your majority which reflects
the point I have just made. The second point is that if people
have an opinion, it is broad and it is not deep. The reason it
is not deep is because there has been no real debate about the
role of the second chamber in our political system. It is not
a pubs and clubs issue. People do not get excited about it. There
has been really no attempt by politicians much to actually go
out and explain it and to engage in a real debate. The debate
that has taken place has been at an elite level and, even then,
I do not think it has been a well-grounded debate. I have to say
that some politicians have demonstrated hidden depths of shallowness
when it comes to actually discussing the issue. So I do not think
it has been a well-grounded debate at all. I think that is an
absolutely poor basis on which to change our constitutional arrangements,
simply because people have been approached in the street without
any real thought about the topic and have given any particular
response. I do not think we are here necessarily to be cyphers
simply for public opinion. At times we have got to give a lead
if we disagree with what people are saying. I think we have got
to go out and try and persuade them to our view. If we do not
persuade them, then that is different, but I do not think we have
reached that stage.
133. Did you try to persuade them from this
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I tried to persuade
different audiences, so I shall keep trying to persuade those
within my party and throughout the country. I am happy to address
whatever audience I can to argue the case I do and, when I do,
I find that people find it rather refreshing to discuss the issue
and actually to think through what they mean by the terminology
they are employing. What do they mean by democracy? You were talking
about using terminology like "representative" and "legitimacy"
and so on. What do you actually mean by these terms? Once people
stand back and think about it, then actually look at what the
second chamber has donebecause this debate is largely taking
place independent of what actually existsI get the impression
from most people I discuss it with that they are not that well
informed about the present second chamber. It is a debate largely
in the abstract. I think there is a case to be made for engaging
in debate and letting people know. Once you do that, I think they
welcome the debate and they do tend to change their minds.
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger
134. Can I come back, Lord Lipsey, on the joint
committee? What would you see the remit of the joint committee
(Lord Lipsey) The basis for the original joint committee,
as you know, was to examine the interrelations between the two
Houses. I think that is an important task but I think we have
to go wider than that. The truth is that, unusually in our system,
all three political parties in both Houses, with the single exception
of the Lib Dems in the House of Commons, are split on this issue.
The most powerful speeches from the Lib Dems in the Lords vote
were from Lord Jenkins who has been bit sniffy about elections
and Lord Dahrendorf who attacked it head-on. The Conservatives
are deeply split about it, as Lord Strathclyde admitted on his
Newsnight interview; they are riven down the middle. Our
side in the Lords is equally split such as Ivor Richard, the previous
Leader of the House, and the vast majority of Labour peers who
think the percentage of election is about right. You would be
able to reflect that disagreement in the Commons, which I do not
now offer guidance on. When you have got that degree of disagreement
about a matter which profoundly affects the work in Parliament,
it seems to me that the way forward is for Parliament to discuss
it. It could take some time, I freely admit it, before a consensus
emerges. You could, however, afford to take some time. It is amazing
how quickly opinion in the Parliamentary Labour Party has changed
on this particular subject. If it has taken 700 years for the
Lords to get to where it has now and it takes another 12 months
or so to get a consensus to the solution, that seems to me to
be well worth the investment.
135. Do you agree with that, Lord Norton?
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I can see the case
for a joint committee. If it met, I think there would be dangers
in confining it solely to discussing the role of the second chamber.
If you have a committee of the two houses, that would be an ideal
place to start actually addressing the role of the Parliament.
136. That is exactly the point I am coming on
to. What is going to be the role of the second chamber, let us
take it in 12 months and three years' time after we have had election
of an unspecified amount of people? What is the pure role of the
second chamber going to be?
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I think, in relation
to the first, the first should be there to restrict government.
It is the elected chamber. It should be an accountable chamber.
I do not want to destroy that accountability by having a second
elected chamber. Therefore, the second chamber should fulfil a
role that is complementary to the first. If the first is not doing
its job, that is not an argument for reforming the second chamber;
it is an argument for making sure that the first does its job
properly. If it is not doing its job properly, you are not going
to get reform of the second chamber. I think it should be a complementary
chamber. I think that it can fulfil certain core functions which
the second chamber alone can do; that is take a second look at
legislation, as the first cannot do it itself; that is the core
on which the Lords I think does really rather well. I would want
to strengthen that. There is a wider scrutinising role as well,
facilitated by the composition and there is a number of other
complementary roles to that, drawing upon the particular nature
that you have in the second chamber under present arrangements
to actually deliver. As far as I see a problem with Parliament,
it actually rests with the first chamber. I do not see the logic
of the argument that the House of Commons is doing a poor job;
the House of Lords is doing a rather good job; reform the House
of Lords. I think one has to start with the first chamber and
get that right and then address the second chamber.
137. What about you, Lord Lipsey? I am asking
you to crystal-ball gaze.
(Lord Lipsey) The trouble is that I would not want
this joint committee to end up discussing absolutely the future
of the universe. As a parallel, if we have a House of Commons
elected on a fair electoral system, less dominated by the whips,
willing to hold the executive properly to account and properly
to source instructions, I think there might be very little role
for a House of Lords. It will be a little while before you get
that. So I do think there is a modest role for the House of Lords.
I would like this joint committee to take the House of Commons
as it exists and consider how the Lords can be complemented. Where
I do not really, I am afraid, agree with the Lord Norton is in
his account of how wonderfully the Lords does its job at the moment.
I think it is easier to believe in the abstract than in practice
and in particular most of the amendments we make to legislation
in the Lords are by the Government. Most are trivial.
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) Could I just add
that when Lord Lipsey says he would like election to the House
of Commons, he means by proportional representation, not by a
fair electoral system. On the point about functions, I think demonstrably
the House of Lords actually does fulfil its functions rather well.
If you look at the origins of government amendments, a lot of
them derive from committee stage where ministers have actually
made an acknowledgement of"if you withdraw it, we
will bring in a properly drafted amendment". I am not saying
the House of Lords could not be strengthened in executing its
functions. I am saying it fulfils them tolerably well. I would
like to see reform of the second chamber that facilitates it fulfilling
its presenting functions even better.
138. Coming from that, one of you said it is
whipping system. Do you see, whatever stage we get to, however
we get there, that it should be party whipping that gets legislation
through in whatever guise? Is whipping in the House of Lords something
that you would consider?
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) You have made a number
of points on that. There is a whip system. I think you need a
whip system. Whips are important as channels of communication.
They are essential for the smooth running of a political body.
You need whips for communication functions, for sending out information
of what is important that is why the Cross-Benchers do not have
such a good turnout as the party members: they do not have that
to the same degree. You need whips. The value of the House of
Lords is that you have got whips but they completely lack the
carrots and sticks that whips have in other legislative chambers.
We can vote as we wish, and it is shown in Hansard, and the whips
can do absolutely nothing about it. You can decide and, if you
do not like what is going on, the general norm is to be absent,
to abstain, or if you really disagree, as I have occasionally
done on three-line whips, you vote against and that is it. That
is one of the advantages of our arrangements. You have got the
whips who are performing the communication function but they have
no role in a disciplinary sense because they have no sanctions
they can deploy.
139. First of all, do you see them having more
of a role in a reformed chamber?
(Professor Lord Norton of Louth) It depends what the
reform is. If it is reform within the existing arrangements, then
things are fine. I think the moment you start to inject an election,
then obviously you are going to get those who take a party whip,
who are there by reason of election, and therefore the whips would
have a greater role to play because if you start to bring in the
other elements, you will find that you have not actually changed
why people have sought election and are elected.
(Lord Lipsey) I start from the position that the power
of the whips in the Lords has increased, is increasing and ought
to be diminished. It may be as Lord Norton described for the Conservative
side of the House of Lords; it is certainly not for the Labour
side. We have iron whipping backed by the strongest of all sanctions,
which is social disapproval. My fear is that if you have the wrong
kind of election, particularly if we have two short terms for
elected Lords the power of the whips will be further increased
because these will be people who require not just the one lot
of party patronage needed to get there in the first place, but
continuing doses of party patronage to stay there, and then we
will become more of a cloned house. I think that the real peril
to the Lords at the moment is the whips.