Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 171)



Mr Brennan

  160. Could I put it to David Lipsey that you are being a bit of an anorak over the electoral system that you desire for the House of Lords, in particular because you do not believe that the majority of the members should even be elected to the House of Lords, and yet you are insistent—I think I heard you correctly earlier—in saying that unless it is STV—if eventually we are proposing a system that includes an open list—it is rendered unacceptable? You would have to vote against it simply on the basis that it is not the method of proportional representation you prefer, even in electing a minority of members to the second chamber which would have a large independent element anyway appointed to it. Is that not a hopelessly anorak type of position on PR?
  (Lord Lipsey) I am a bit of an anorak on that! I do think the method of election point stands, irrespective of the proportion we are talking about being elected. I just do not like the system.

  161. I agree you do not like the system but is it not the case, for example, that under the Government's proposal, which envisages only 20 per cent of members being elected, the truth of the matter is that, whatever system was proposed for electing those members, about 20 per cent of the population maximum would actually vote if they were aware of the fact that they were only voting for one-fifth of the members of the body for which the election is being held?
  (Lord Lipsey) The Government proposes that the election be held at the same time as the general election, so if it was 59 per cent last time, you are going to get a 49 per cent turnout in the next general election; I imagine you will get 48 per cent for the Lords.

  162. Can I just ask you this question, what do you think would be the amount of money that would be sufficient to persuade current life Peers to agree to redundancy?
  (Lord Lipsey) I shall prefer not to think in terms of a capital sum but in terms of a pension because sums tend to look like scary numbers. The trouble with the remuneration system, if you call it that at the moment, is that some people do perfectly well out of it, those who do not live in London but who already had a London place, and they use that as their base, those who attend every day do rather well out of it and others do miserably. I can think of people from Scotland who have to book a hotel room in London during the week and it really is not funny, they are down to their last cup of tea. I do not think that the present system is satisfactory. I think you would find that if you produced a reasonable pension quite a lot of the older members would be glad by now to be relieved of the responsibility to attend every day and it would enable a faster run-down, if this is desirable, of existing political Peers.

  163. Do you think that would be sweetened if some of these people were given club rights, if you like, in relation to the Palace of Westminster and the House of Lords, or would that be irrelevant?
  (Lord Lipsey) I think it would be fairly irrelevant. There are some club rights for departed hereditaries and not very many of them chose to avail themselves of the club rights. I think to be half in and half out is really uncomfortable. I do think it is appropriate at a certain stage for people, without going through hardship, to say, I have done my bit here, my wife would like me at home in my declining years, and with dignity and without poverty to retire from the fray.

  164. In that sense you would not favour the transition period, allowing some life Peers to have residual speaking rights but not voting rights?
  (Lord Lipsey) I think that that gets fantastically complicated. We are going to have two tier members anyway, though I do not think that desperately matters, lifers and hereditaries, and we then have a third tier of elected, some who can speak and some who can vote. Does the minister listen to those who might vote against him or does he listen to all of them?

  165. Could I just quote to Lord Norton a little bit from Hansard on 9 January, you said, "An unelected, and hence unaccountable, second chamber is necessary to preserve the fundamental accountability of the political system". You did describe that as a paradox.
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I think the present system has fundamental accountability, that is that there is one body, that is the party in government, that is responsible for public policy. It is, therefore, that party, elected on the manifesto, which is accountable to the electorate for its conduct. If they do not like it they can sweep it out at the next election. In the words of Karl Popper, "election day becomes judgment day". I think that maintains fundamental accountability, because that is the nearest you are going to get to democracy in the sense of ensuring that what people want is translated into legislative output. The moment you start creating a second chamber that is not complementary but competing with the first you challenge that because electors do not know who to hold accountable. If you take the United States, two coequal chambers, both elected, it bears very little relationship to what people actually want. That is one of the contributing factors to a critical decline in recent years in trust in the government in the United States, it does not deliver what people want, they do not know who to hold accountable, it is not because of conflict between the chambers, it is the way they stitch up deals between them and produce outputs which do not relate to what people want. By maintaining one elected chamber through which the government is elected you create a body that electors can hold to account. Once you start creating a second elected chamber you are not empowering the electors you are disempowering them because you are removing that core accountability from the political process.

  166. I will not pursue the debate about that. Can I finally ask you, Lord Norton, would you have preferred to have had the ability to retain the hereditary element or to retain the current hereditary Peers?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I think they genuinely recognised that it was difficult to sustain the argument for them. I have also argued that the legitimacy of the House of Lords has to be earned, we cannot take it as a given. If you want a second chamber you have to make a case for it, and I do. I believe our legitimacy derives from working for that, therefore you need a house of experience and expertise which can fulfill those functions I mentioned and, therefore, it does mean bringing in those people who have that experience and expertise to deliver.

  Chairman: Because we are battling against time I am going to ask colleagues who have points to, perhaps put them sequentially and then I will ask our witnesses to respond in that way. That would save us a little bit of time.

Mr Trend

  167. I have one simple point to put to Lord Norton, you say that election day is judgment day, it is judgment day for the government and what happens in the House of Commons, particularly if you are a large majority of 20, which is increasingly becoming significant. You said earlier that you thought that the House of Commons could not do its job properly, which is a job that every democratic system throughout the world has of holding the government to account and I think it is becoming increasingly the way that judgment is passed on the government. If the Commons are going to do their job properly then the Lords should not be reformed in order to make it do its job properly. I would say why not, why not use this golden opportunity to, perhaps, make a system which does work in a way that people will understand better and is more familiar throughout the world, a balance, which we do not have at the moment.

  Chairman: Thank you for that.

  Annette Brooke: My question does follow on quite well, Baroness Williams was suggesting wider functions for the House of Lords to help with pre-legislative scrutiny, I wonder whether you could both comment on how the House of Lords could become more effective? I know you both differ there, Lord Lipsey saying it was not effective, and Lord Norton suggested it was. I would like to hear about how it could be more effective?


  168. Can I add one to the pot. I know that you say that we should not get hooked on composition but in a way unless we get the compositional point sorted there are many things that flow from that in terms of how you organise an election system that become difficult to do. There seems to be some broad agreement, for reasons that have been well described just now by Lord Norton, but at the same time it has to be quite different. Unlike the Commons it has to be away from raw politics, it has to be a reservoir of expertise and independence. Whatever we do we do not want to lose it, we want to develop that rather than lose it. In reconstructing it we need to find enough legitimacy for people to take it seriously and that, many people find, requires at least a good chunk of election, if not a majority, and if you balance the amount of election that you require to secure legitimacy that gives you then quite a chunk that you can add in to secure the independence and the expertise. Is it not the case that you can have more than one good thing in this world?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) You want short answers! Shall I take them seriatim, on Mr Trend's point I do not think you can look to the second chamber to make up for the failure of the first to do its job. Why is first unable to do its job? The argument is that the government dominates the first. If the government dominates the first then you are not going to get reform of the second chamber in order to hold the government to account. I do not see the logic of how you are going to bring that about. Then, in a general way if I can relate it to Ms Brooke's point about pre-legislative scrutiny, I am a very strong believer in strengthening both Houses in fulfilling their functions, not least of scrutiny. In the Commission I chaired that reported last year I was very keen to see that and very keen for bills to be published in draft and for Parliament to engage in pre-legislative scrutiny. Both chambers have a role in that, it allows the Lords to play to its strengths, because it has people who know the area and can engage in that. I am very keen both for pre-legislative scrutiny and for stronger scrutiny during the legislative stage. In the Commons special standing committees should be the norm and something similar in the Lords by using select committees prior to the normal standing committee stage to engage in detailed legislative scrutiny. I think the two Houses can complement one another in fulfilling that particular task. I am a very strong believer in strengthening both chambers in fulfilling legislative scrutiny, both pre-legislative and bills that are going through and, indeed, post legislative scrutiny, on which Parliament tends to be pretty poor. Once the legislation is out of the way we do not come back to it often enough and I see a role for one or both chambers in doing that. The Lords is particularly good in terms of its composition for having committees that are not so much departmentally related but cross-departmental, looking at issues which are not covered departmentally. I think we are moving already in that area, for example the Committee of Economic Affairs, and I Chair the Constitution Committee, which is a new one, and then we have the ad hoc committees. I am a very strong believer in strengthening our role in that area. On the fundamental point put by you, Chairman, you said we have to look at the composition and what flows from that. I think it is the other way round, we have to look at the functions and then see what flows from that in terms of composition. I do believe we need to have a reservoir of expertise and independence and I think our legitimacy must come from that, it does not derive solely from election, otherwise if applied generally that would cause mayhem in society. You are saying part elected will give legitimacy and, therefore, it will apply to the whole chamber because some proportion is elected. I do not quite follow, how is it going to emanate from a small proportion to the whole chamber? In that sense if you think election produces legitimacy then you will end up with a whole elected chamber. The leader of the Lords has said that everyone will be equally legitimate, if the appointed members are as legitimate as the elected members why are you having elected members? I do not see the logic of the argument. Legitimacy, as I say, does not derive solely from election, I think we have to work at it. I think we have been very poor in explaining and promoting ourselves, which I think is a fault of both chambers, we are not good at reaching out and telling people and justifying and demonstrating what we are doing. We are a legitimate chamber for fulfilling the functions that we have. I think the composition is right. I think the functions are right. I think we do it far better. In fulfilling those functions I think we have the right membership and that is legitimate. I fully accept that we have to go out and make the case that it is and we cannot just assume it.
  (Lord Lipsey) First on pre-legislative scrutiny, that is music to my ears, I have just spent six months trying to get the government, against its wishes, to have a pre-legislative scrutiny committee on the Communications Bill before the next session, which kicking and screaming they finally did. The thought of the two Houses working together and bringing their combined skills to bear on that Bill is going to be much better than either of us looking at it once the government has decided. This is a very exciting thing for the future and I hope it will be done more. Legitimacy, this is terribly difficult, we obviously sound like an elitist but we are elitist, we cannot help it, we would not be here otherwise. I find this present thing whereby the electorate are saying, we want more election for everything, we want referendums on everything and at the same time we seem to be less and less inclined to vote, which was shown by the turnout at the last general election is weird. I do think there are sources of legitimacy, as Philip was saying, other than election. Nobody says, for example, that we should have an elected Civil Service, although nobody doubts that the Civil Service has great power. Most people think that their procedural rules, methods of selection, and so on, give the Civil Service sufficient legitimacy and think we are better off having that and not an elected Civil Service. That is true of the Lords. As for communicating this, I use a very homely analogy, if a household has a Rolls Royce, fine, but if it is going to have another car it probably does not want another Rolls Royce, it wants a little run-about for town. In the same way, you have a House of Commons whose legitimacy does stem from election, that is the big car, and you want something with a completely different set of characteristics, you do not want another smaller Rolls Royce, and if you do you will probably find they bump into each other in the garage and we are no further forward. Broadly speaking, I think we would be better off to have a broadly appointed second chamber, however done.


  169. I think we are into very interesting territory here. I am interested in Philip's answer, I do not find these at all straightforward issues. I apologise for repeating the anecdote I told last time, and I would like Philip to think of an answer to it, when I could not support part of the Terrorism Bill—and everyone here said the Lords must sort it out, it went to the Lords and you sorted it out for us—I had the whips on the telephone to me, and other people saying, those Lords are not elected, you cannot possibly support what they have said. If I go down your road I am never going to have an answer when the whips telephone me.
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) You can have an answer, which I think is the one you gave, which is the Lords got it right.

  170. That is not an answer that will commit itself to the whips I am afraid.
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) Most of what the whips do is based on bluff, it really depends on the quality of the members whether they call the bluff or not. I will remind you of a case in 1985 when there was a problem in the Commons over top people's pay and Conservative MPs were starting to get a little bit irate and there was a possibility of the government defeat at the time. There was a recommendation from the Senior Salary Review Body recommending an increase in top people's pay and a number of Conservative MPs did not like it and they were threatening to vote against, and there was a possibility of a government defeat on the topic. Some of the whips went round to the members and said, "Careful, the Prime Minister has her resignation in her handbag", as if it was conceivable that if the government lost a vote on top people's pay it was going to go to the country as to whether top people could be paid more money. It was bluff, but it works with some people. That is the way whips operate. I do not think you respond to it in an institutional sense by changing things, it depends on the quality of the Members of Parliament and whether you recognise what the whips are about. It really comes back to my fundamental point, one should be focussing much more on the House of Commons than one is focussing on the House of Lords.

  171. Unless you understand the House of Commons bit of it you will not understand why it becomes important to get a second chamber with legitimacy that is to be taken seriously?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) The problem there is with the whips, most people thought, and you thought that the Lords was acting legitimately in taking the decision it did, and there has been no come back, because there was a recognition that this is the House of Lords doing what the House of Lords is there for, there was not a constitutional crisis.

  Chairman: We have identified an issue that we will have to find our way through. We have had a very interesting session with you both. I am very grateful to you for coming along. Thank you very much for coming along.

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