Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 172 - 179)




  172. We are delighted to have Viscount Thurso with us. Your particular interest, if I can put it that way, is of interest to everyone because you have come from one place and now sit in the other. I see you describe yourself in your paper to us with a disarming phrase "hereditary radical". We particularly want to know from you, someone who has experience now of these two chambers, what your approach to the reform of the second chamber is? Would you like to say something—we have seen your paper, I hope all colleagues will have read it—by way of an introduction to it?
  (Viscount Thurso) If I may. Can I first make the point that that paper was written, as I hope was pretty obvious, before the first stage of reform. It was actually an internal document written for a commission within the Liberal Democrats in the Lords. My thinking has moved on from that. I do not think my thinking is inconsistent, but there are certain areas where I have refined what I think. If I can make a couple of brief points, one of the things is that certainly in my business career I saw a development in the planning process. In days gone by we used to say, here we are, what is happening and where is that going to lead us? We have developed that into saying, here we are, where do we want to be, and then ask the question, how do we get there? The latter is what is applicable to the current process. The second point is the one of function versus composition. I think this is a wholly circular argument and you can get on or off at any point. Therefore the third point to me, which is really critical, is to look at the objectives, what you want to get out of it in the long-term. To do that you do need to look at the strengths and the weaknesses and work out what you want to reject and what you want to keep. For me the key is that whatever you do it passes the legitimacy test. I hope you have some questions on that. The second is to preserve the character and atmosphere of the House, which has a lot of merits in certain areas. The third thing is to strengthen the role of Parliament as a whole in holding the executive to account and to leave the Commons as the predominant political chamber. I dislike the terms of supremacy and primacy, but that is semantics. That is all I would like to say by way of opening.

  173. We will move on to Austin Mitchell. Would you like to say in a minute or so, by way of introduction, your general approach to this and then we will fire off questions to both of you.
  (Mr Mitchell) Thank you for the opportunity to present evidence. I have to say right at the start I have changed my mind on the issue. I thought initially the elected element had to be a minority, very much a minority element because I do not want to the election of another chamber just like us, that is to say thick-skinned politicians desperate to climb the ladder of success, as we all are, some of us more successful than others and compliant tools of the executive. The main problem we have to deal with is the unchecked power of the executive in this country. I have changed my mind because I think there is no other legitimate basis for a chamber that can have a standing and an acceptance and a clear role, other than a majority of them being elected on an elected basis. It does allow us to mix in other elements which are desirable. If we are starting from scratch why not use a variety of methods which are open to us to supplement what must be basically elective. I think we are in a situation where it is going to become an argument between those who are saying, government 20 per cent elected, and others wanting 30, 40, 50, "Any advance on 50?" Mine is 60. I think that is a majority. Also, strengthened by an age requirement, which personally I would like though it might be difficult, to bring in experience rather than those anxious to climb the ladder, such as are elected to the European Parliament or to the House of Commons. That would be a helpful factor. Its powers need to be those of providing a check to the executive, supplementing the things the Commons do badly. I think you cannot consider House of Lords reform just as a separate unrelated issue, it has to combine with further reforms in the House of Commons so that you can arrange some differentiation of functions between the two Houses. There are things which we do very badly and do not do at all in many respects,-pre-legislative review is one of them. I was struck by the New Zealand system, indeed I was a member of the Hansard Commission of Inquiry into the legislative process, which recommended pre-legislative hearings, legislation should be brought in, publicised, there should be then a committee, with a draft bill, which will hear public representations from those pressure grounds on the bill before it finalises it and then it is introduced through the formal procedures of second reading, et cetera. That works well in New Zealand. It would enhance confidence and participation if we had it here. I think it is difficult to visualise the House of Commons taking on more duties because, frankly, we are pretty well over-stretched as it is, therefore it is a function that could come naturally to the second chamber. As for post legislative review, two years on how is legislation working? We need to look at that as well. Again the second chamber could do that. Those are my basic ideas. It is, in a sense, a pick and mix proposal, people will do their own picking and mixing. While you can quibble with the details of it all I am trying to suggest is a broad outline of a basically elective second chamber which yet brings in another wider range of opinion than the brutal thick-skinned creatures we are who will battle through the party and the election system. Perhaps more sensitively, angelic people, or whatever, but certainly contributing another element of experience and an element of diversity, with some limited power for the parties to nominate. I think that power was grievously abused at that last election, when people traded seats in the Commons for places in the peerage. That was a major scandal. If government is going to abuse its power in that way then the power should be restrained. It does need some power to nominate a minority to carry on the purposes of government in the second chamber, I concede that, with an element of representation by interest groups. That gabble does not come within your time limit, but there it is.

  174. You have both been very helpful there, let us respond to that and probe you on it. Austin you describe yourself as somebody who has moved on this, that is always interesting to explore, surely the one thing that whatever we did would make it all worse rather than better would be if we finished up with a second chamber that was more like the first one? You say in your nice paper to us we are the custard pie place, we are the place where we throw custard pie at each other all the time and we need a serious place that looks at what we are doing. If we had a system that simply was wholly elected on some kind of party list system would it not be the case that we might call it election, but it would be actually tantamount to appointment and we would finish up with critical appointees in a second chamber that would make the place less independent, less expert, less robust, less of a check than we have now?
  (Mr Mitchell) The House of Commons is basically the stage on which we conduct the four year long election campaign. The second chamber is going to have a more considered revising role, concerned more with the detail of legislation and the revision of legislation and the faults and workings of legislation. While it is true that parties are going to be involved in any election system, you cannot devise an election system unless it is indirect election by regional assemblies, which we do not have, which is going to keep the parties out, even that will be strongly influenced by the parties. We just have to accept that as a given, there is no way round it. If we try and ensure that a different type of person is selected by an age requirement and if we add to that the nominated independent section, which is 100 strong on my proposal, plus some representation of interest groups, I think we dilute the party element and widen the range of experience. My answer would be that this is better than a wholly predominantly nominated Second Chamber which I think is going to enhance the power of the executive to a dangerous degree so lets use a different election system, which will be a regional STV. The regional list system, not the closed list system we had at the European elections, but regional STV, this gives the voter more choice and requires the parties, to nominate rather different people of a wider appeal in the region than the present system of the selection to constituencies.

  175. Of course the government is not proposing regional STV.
  (Mr Mitchell) It is not, but that is no concern of mine.

  176. It is probably a concern of ours. Can I ask you about one feature of your proposal, as well as the elected element you do allow the parties a block of nominees. Do you allow them 100?
  (Mr Mitchell) 80. That is for all the parties, I do not say how they should be chosen.

  177. That is an interesting proposal because it is not one that anyone else has put to us. It giving the parties something. It is saying, if you give us election, as it were, we will give you a chunk of straight nominees.
  (Mr Mitchell) There has to be some ability on the part of the executive and also on the part of the parties to have some power of nomination to bringing in people to serve their purposes, provide their backbone in the second chamber. What I am proposing is appointment renewed after each election, four year renewal, so that they will be reappointed after each election to the House of Commons, and only a minority. If you give then the large amount of nominating power that they seem to be aspiring in the other proposals for the second chamber then it will be abused, it will become a dustbin for political relics. I myself was not approached at the last election, to my great chagrin, but I would only have stood for the Ambassadorship in Iceland rather than a seat in the House of Lords. It is either going to be that kind of dustbin or it is going to be used for the kind of political manoeuver which went on as people were winkled out of seats and went to the House of Lords. It will be abused, in other words.
  (Viscount Thurso) I do think the manner in which people are sent to the upper House will have an effect on how it will operate it. One of the things that I have developed my thinking on is I am very much in favour of a minimum age, I think it should could be quite high, something in the order of 45 or possibly 50, specifically to prevent people starting a career in the second chamber and specifically to try and the get away from the hurly burly of the party politics that is the prerogative and preserve of the Commons. The other thing which I think is very important, in my view, is a relatively long term and no possibility of reelection and reappointment, because that is where the power of the whips really lies. The difference between the Commons and the Lords is very marked. In the Lords it is very much, we have a three line whip do you think you could possibly make it, great thanks if you did and, as I am sure everybody here has experienced, it is not that gentle in the Commons. That is a very, very important point. I think, therefore, if you have that preservation of the atmosphere through a slightly older House, through people who have had, obviously, a career somewhere else, which could well be in the Commons, it should be no bar; and you will do that by preserving conventions. We use conventions a lot in our system. There is a convention in the Lords that you do not take part in any party politics in the area in which you live. It is a very good convention. You do not undertake constituency work, by convention, you tend to take up causes or regional issues. I think all of these can be quite easily preserved and maintain the difference, quite a proper difference, between the two Houses. The other area where I have moved, I have to say I am moving in the same direction as Austin, although I started from much more election anyway, which is I think really I am quite happy to see the whole place elected. I am much less convinced now about the value of crossbenchers than I was when I wrote my paper. I have to say that crossbenchers do tend to be very elitist, they do tend to represent certain specific areas of society and I do not see any system that actually produces the broad range one would really like to see. The key thing is that it should be people of ability. I have nothing against the test of being able to pass an election. I would, most of all, favour STV, but I would be happy to see an open list system. I would hate to see a closed list system.

  178. Election in this country means party. 95 per cent, or more, of the people in this country do not belong to a political party. If we want to bring people of independence and expertise into a second chamber, not the primary chamber, a secondary revising chamber would we be mad to invent a system that stopped us recruiting the people we need to do that job?
  (Viscount Thurso) That is a slight, "when did you stop beating your wife" question. I do not think we would be mad because I do not think the premise actually holds good. First of all, I do not see anything wrong with a party system, provided it is a system which allows for more than two parties, and certainly a good proportional representation system does allow for a number of minority parties to be represented. Secondly, I think that the idea that the crossbenchers are wholly independent of politics is actually not to understand how the crossbenchers work. Certainly my observation was that it was not difficult to predict on a lot of political issues how the crossbenchers would vote. On certain issues which they were very keen on they would go in a different direction, perhaps to the one you might suspect was their political allegiance. The crossbenchers are not as a-political, in my view, from experience, as people make out they are. I think a great deal is talked about the independence of the Lords and the independence of the upper chamber and I do not think it holds up to scrutiny. This is apocryphal, but a number of former colleagues have said that since the last reform the mood of the crossbenchers have changed even more, it is even more apparent that they hold broadly to one political persuasion or the other. Although 95 per cent of the country do not belong to a political party a much, much higher percentage have a regular political affinity. I do not see anything wrong with a broadly based party system that allows for minority parties to be a foundation for producing members of the second house, the senate.

Mr Trend

  179. I wanted to ask Austin about his plans. You have always had fairly radical views about this, do you think this is an opportunity to address the question of holding the executive to account in rebalancing the positions and functions of the two Houses? Would you like that to be part of this process?
  (Mr Mitchell) I think that is the crucial issue. Since we are now divising something new it is possible to start from scratch and ask what basic functions it should fulfill, I think that has to be the start of the question. Controlling the executive more effectively is clearly the prime one. I think the Commons are never going to be able to do it and because of its nature in the British system the executive controls the legislature. We are, after all, selected on a party ticket and there to support the government. What we need is not some rebalancing of the functions between the two Houses but a second chamber which can effectively say to the executive, hang on, have another look at this and, secondly, can bring in a wider range of experience and backgrounds, people who will supplement the basic party debate and give it a wider dimension. Of its nature this is going to be government by party, you cannot get away from that, if there is an election system the parties will move in, it is like being drawn into a vacuum. But we can supplement the kind of person who is coming in in career politics. This is a big change, we now have career politics, where people want to get up and climb ladders, and you do not climb ladders by making controversy or by dissenting. The great mavericks of yester year, Churchill or whoever, if they dissented now would end their careers immediately. We do need to create an institutional chamber, which will have to be the second chamber, it can only be a partial chamber and it can bring in a wider range of voices and it can examine through its committee structures what the government is proposing in terms of legislation, bringing in wider public participation and what the government has done in terms of legislation. I do not think you are ever going to be able to stop, nor indeed should we, the power of the executive or political party, because that is the basic choice that the electorate has to have.

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