Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 192)



  180. Whilst I was behind you on this I have ended up in front of you. I would not have changed the original system nor would I change this one. I think this one performs the function that everyone is trying to protect and if they cannot think of another way of doing it the position changes. They should not change it if it is doing such a good job. Be that as it may. Many parliamentary systems have two elected chambers and the electorate have some subtle way of distinguishing between the two. In some countries they vote on the same day and people vote for different parties in different chambers at the same time because there is a sense amongst them that some balance is needed. I increasingly think it is going to be difficult to have a chamber which has any elected proportion, unless it is a complete elected chamber, and of the members who were not elected the legitimacy of the members will become an issue sooner or later. It is blazingly obvious to people in the country, you either have an elected the system or you do not, and then leave the people of the country to decide if they want to use the second chamber as a chamber of the government, which is part of the first. You have always seemed to me to be a very distinctive politician, are you not uncomfortable with the idea of a hybrid?
  (Mr Mitchell) What I put up is a hybrid in that sense. I think that is the only way of approaching the issue, checking the executive provided we have—and I agree with Viscount Thurso on the age level, I think that would be necessary—a different electoral system for the second chamber. People do vote differently under an STV system and they are more likely to spread their votes between parties and they are also more likely to pick out somebody they know of a regional reputation, because it would be on regional basis. That is a hybrid element which is valuable in producing differentiation.

  181. I am surprised you have not gone for electing the whole house?
  (Mr Mitchell) We have to take this opportunity to bring in other people with a wider range of ability.

  182. Do you think those who have been elected and those that have not will be regard in the same way by public opinion and by each other?
  (Mr Mitchell) Only time will tell. In New Zealand, where they have just gone for proportional representation—the list members are regarded—partly the convention of the House of Lords—as interfering in people's constituencies as an interfering nuisance, because they do interfere in constituencies, and that would be a point of friction between the second chamber and the first rather than between different members of the second chamber, I do not know. Just as now you have two elements, still the remaining hereditary element of 1992, plus all of the nominations, and these have been able to live and let live for years and get on with each other, as they have much the same basic role, so it will be a hybrid second chamber.

Mr Heyes

  183. It now seems clear that the White Paper proposals attracted support from wherever you look and there seems to be as many different ideas about the way forward as there are members of the Commons. That could well be recipe to do nothing, to abandon the idea altogether, that might well suit some people. Would it matter if that was the case?
  (Mr Mitchell) It would matter because a great opportunity would be thrown away. I am not sure if the government's proposals are cynical, so they put in 20 per cent in the knowledge that they could then offer the sop to those who wanted 30, 40 or 50 by marginally increasing it. I am not sure what the tactic is but I accept, as you do, the danger that the argument over what is going to happen could stymie the whole reform altogether and cause the rien ne dure comme le provisoire, things to hang on as they are. That would be a mistake. We now have an opportunity to devise the kind of second chamber that is going to fulfil the purposes of policy in this country and which is going to be a considerable improvement on what has gone before, and I do not think we should pass that up. It is now a question of a sustained debate so that we can arrive at some agreed conclusion. That is why, unusually for me, I have put a compromise in there.
  (Viscount Thurso) As I said in the debate, I believe that reform is an iterative process and it will go on until it arrives at its own conclusion, I think that will be largely or wholly elected one day, it may take a very long time to get there. I agree with the point that you are making that the worst possible outcome would be that this is perceived as being so difficult that it is kicked into the long grass and it is another 90 years before we get round to doing anything about it. I would take 20 per cent because that is 20 per cent more than we have now, even though what I would like to see is something far greater. I think the biggest danger of the lot is that we will let this fall. The reason for that is there is a myth that the House of Lords works, and it does not, in my view. It works extremely well internally, it is a very pleasant place to be, having sat on the Refreshment Committee there I can tell you it has excellent service in many ways. When you have taken an important amendment, as I did to the Scotland Bill, got it through the Lords, had it kicked back by the Commons and had been unable to see it through any further, which is on the number of MSPs—and it is a subject we are now back at, doing consultation on the probability of having to return to primary legislation on exactly this point—and there are many other instances where sensible amendments have been just taken out because in the Commons we can always say they are hereditary or unelected, therefore they are not legitimate, which is why ultimately I believe in the legitimacy test. As long as we can say in the Commons they are legitimate it does not matter how it is composed, it will work. At the moment the Lords, in my view, does not fulfil its duty.

  184. I agree with you, doing nothing is the worst option. Do you have thoughts on how you avoid that?
  (Viscount Thurso) I think your next witness is the one you need to push on that, if I may say so.

  Chairman: You are probably right.

Mr Brennan

  185. I very much welcome the paper that Austin submitted as somebody who believes in 100 per cent elected House of Lords but recognises that that is not an option that commands a majority and we do need to find a consensus. I was a bit concerned about this business of creating a superannuated body and a minimum age for membership of 45 for the second chamber. I notice in your paper, Austin, you said this would prevent a legislative council. You call it the second chamber becoming a springboard into the Commons, as the European Parliament has been. I wonder whether John Thurso might comment, as somebody who has used the Lords as a springboard into the Commons, and, perhaps, explain his support for Austin's 45 year rule and, perhaps, Austin, you can explain why any young person would want to vote for a body where they are precluded from standing for election for?
  (Viscount Thurso) I should say that when my father died I was 43, so I was very close to the limit. Yes, I do recognise when I argue this case I am the living embodiment of the opposite. I believe that there will be very few others who will follow the course that I have done. I do not expect many in the next intake, when the remaining hereditaries go, I do not expect that we will see many of those coming into the Commons. I think it is noticeable in modern politics there are an awful lot of people who have gone to university and studied a subject to do with politics and come straight here as researchers, and then moved up to advisers. It has always amused me, they advise, then they move down to become an MP, they then become a junior MP, and hopefully they work up the greasy pole and sometimes in their 40s enter the Cabinet and have effectively done nothing other than be involved in politics. I have no problem with that for the Commons, we are a professional political body in that sense. As previous witnesses have said, one of the strengths of the Lords is the fact that it draws on the experience of people from what they have done before they get there, in my case it was a career in the tourism industry, so I got the tourism brief, which is rather logical and rare. It did mean that people were talking and did have experience of being in industry or experience or the law, wherever it might be. I think also that if you have got to 45 in a system where you then have this extraordinary benefit of an accident at birth and you are somebody who does not want the hurly burly of the kind of election that we go through, first past the post, then taking part in the gentler form of regional STV or list on a once in a lifetime basis if you succeed would I think encourage people who want to give service but do not want to be professional politicians in the same way as we do. That is my view.


  186. That is a very good point that has been raised, surely in practice it will not be like that? What will happen is that you make a devastating analysis of professional political class that has taken over this chamber, all we will have is a superannuated professional political class taking over through a party election system.
  (Viscount Thurso) I do not think so. It is one of those things I think is impossible to prove one way or another. It is really a question of belief rather than establishing facts. My belief is that a properly composed system with the kind of age limits and other things that we have both been talking about would encourage people who would under no circumstances stand for the Commons. I think also, funnily enough, there would be a far less of an incentive for parties to actually reward superannuated members because why bother when you have a pool of different people who actually want to go and do a good job for you in the second chamber. I suppose I do have a belief that the system would work.
  (Mr Mitchell) If I can add to that, we have to accept that we are all careerists now, some of us more successful, although I would say luckier, than others. That is the nature of the modern game, it is career politics. If we are talking about the 20s, 30s, even 40s, you had a class, some of which pursued a career in politics, went in young and achieved high office. It has now become a universal preoccupation and we all want to come in early, establish ourselves, get on the ladder, that is the ultimate satisfaction of the political career, to hold power. I think that career politics is universal now. Secondly, we have to face the fact in this country we have fewer legislators, fewer slots for career politicians per capita than any other system, certainly than federal systems like Australia or the States, where there are other stages to strut on and other careers to pursue. In that situation any election provision, whether it is the European Parliament or the second chamber is going to become part of that struggle. I agree absolutely on the age barrier as a differentiating factor, because if people have not made the front bench by the time they are 45 in this Parliament they might as well give up.

Mr Brennan

  187. You do not think it would put off young voters?
  (Mr Mitchell) Let me come to that, that is a separate issue. I think it is an attempt, this age issue, to bring in a different kind of person, to bring in somebody who is a more experienced in life, who has had a career and not committed themselves to a career in politics and struggled to get in, we need to bring in the diversity. That will be supplemented by the election system.

  188. It will be like a senior golf tour, post 45 they move into that bracket. They will not be a different kind of person, they will be older.
  (Mr Mitchell) They will be different because they are older and they are not competing for high office, they have not devoted themselves to a political career, which people do, by taking jobs which are jobs to fill in time before they get into Parliament, which is their ambition. These will be people who had a career. They will have to be people of some regional standing—you might say regional television personalities will have an advantage, rather than golf pros, I would not be adverse to that—rather than be selected as party hacks who failed to get into Parliament and they are contenting themselves with second best. I think we can rely on the parties to offer some choice and a sensible list of members. I think the regional basis has to be borne in mind as well. Whether it will produce interest in young people, I have no answer to that question because no change in the electoral system in the kind of person coming forward, whether they are in hippy dress like me saying out of date phrases from the 1960s or pursuing other gimmicks, is going to do that.

  189. You could rename it the Commons Classic, probably.
  (Mr Mitchell) We are not going to get young people interested in the Commons either because they are not particularly interested in a lot of career politicians fratching.

  Chairman: The idea of protecting people of a certain age is something that a number of us could get increasingly interested in. We are now into effectively the last five minutes because we need a little break before we start the next session. I am going to ask colleagues who have got points to put them and then both of you to give a quick come back at the end.

  Mr Lyons: Austin, can I turn to the paper again, the question of 500 Members. With Boundary Commission reviews is it not inevitable that we will finish up with a bigger second chamber than the whole House of Commons if we stick by 500? Does it not seem a bit large, 500? You say 20 per cent is a sop. When does the Government get worried, at what percentage, in your opinion, in terms of what you have said? The other issue which is important is 20 members nominated by the TUC, the CBI. Is there not a danger we will just finish up with the usual suspects in that situation? The other thing about age is I have been impressed by a lot of the younger Lords and the contributions they are making, do you not think that it is just a piece of nonsense that we try and bar people one day when they are 45 but they are okay two days later at 46?

  Annette Brooke: The more I hear people talking I really do not understand why you just cannot bring some of these experts in to have them as part of the debate when you need their expertise. My colleague here pointed out perhaps somebody is only popping in once every two years, so why on earth have they got to be brought in on a formal basis at all?

  Mr Prentice: John told us that he held the tourism brief because he worked in the tourism industry. My question is who holds the home help brief in the Lords? A question to Austin, and your paper is absolutely fascinating. How does this regionalism tie in with devolution? Will the reformed second chamber have scrutiny powers for legislation passed by the devolved institutions? This was a point that David Owen picked up in his submission to us.

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Coming back to the voting system, it was an interesting comment you made but whatever system you have, whether it is regional, constituency, whatever, unless it is a broad one you will get that interference from the Upper House to the Lower House by virtue of the votes system anyway.


  190. What I would really like you to do, and I am sorry about this, in a minute each just knock the points in turn if you would.
  (Mr Mitchell) Five hundred is an optional figure, people can put their own figure on it. It seemed to me a reasonably sized chamber to take on the job and the elements can be adjusted upwards or downwards if you want a lower or a higher figure. Twenty per cent, where will the Government stop, I do not know. That is a question of psychology, do not ask me, ask the Government. The interest group element, I think it is a good idea. It might produce the usual suspects but I think it is up to the interest groups to select good people who are going to put their case adequately because it is an entry to the legislative process which they have not had and I am sure they will want to make effective use of it. Age qualification, I think that is important because it brings in people with different career paths and different experience and that is the main thing. I do not want them to be like us, young, thrusting, dynamic people like myself, coming in on a remorseless rise to power. I think they are here to do a different job from that in the second chamber. You could bring experts in but what I am suggesting in the nominated by an independent commission section is to bring a wider range of experience and political background of people who are not going to submit themselves to the election process but who have a contribution to make. You can on top of that bring in experts for particular purposes but bear in mind unless they are Members they will not have the same status and the same ability. How does it tie in with regionalism, it ties in very well, regionalism is an emerging trend and it is going to be a major preoccupation over the next few years, I think. If we had regional assemblies now you could talk about regional assemblies nominating but because the regional focus is developing I am suggesting regional election on a regional STV system and a great opportunity for debating regional issues on a regional stage in the second chamber. Is there going to be interference, yes there is, they are going to argue. Since the job of the second chamber is essentially different, that is to say it is checking the Executive and it is dealing much more with perfecting legislation, I would like to think that there will not be all that much time for them to start fratching on the ground over whether I write about Mrs Bloggs' council drains or you do.

  191. That was a Grimsby minute.
  (Viscount Thurso) I agree 500 is too many, one would have to work down progressively. I see something nearer 350, 400 as being a more appropriate number. My experience was there were broadly 275, 300 working Peers when I was there. I take your point on the age but, like any line that is drawn, it is always made ridiculous by being one day one side and one day the other side. I think it is the broad concept of trying to go for people with maturity and experience. Some young people will be out who could have done the job but broadly it will be right. Experts, yes, I see no reason why experts could not be brought in to give evidence whether it be through the Committee system or some other way. Again, what we are looking for is people with a breadth of experience and it is a general experience of life, of industry or of a profession or of charities, or whatever, that one is really looking for. That partly answers your question. I was dead lucky that it just so happened that I arrived when there was a gap for tourism and I happened to have done it all my life. There will undoubtedly be somebody, many people actually in the Lords, who have specific knowledge of home help.

Mr Prentice

  192. Never been one, I bet.
  (Viscount Thurso) I am not sure exactly now who does it in the Lords. My wife actually did it professionally for a short time for a few years ago to earn some pin money, so if it was me I would go and ask her about it. On the point of devolution, there are some interesting things to look at in the devolution model. One thing I would be wholly against is the devolved assemblies becoming an electoral college, I think that grossly subtracts from rather than adds to. Yes, on the interference, they will interfere and that is precisely what we want them to do because we want to strengthen the check, but with the Parliament Act ultimately if the Government really wishes to get its business it will.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for that. Thank you to both of you for a very interesting session indeed. Thank you both for your papers and for coming along and talking to us and contributing to the unravelling of this. Thank you very much.

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