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Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 200 - 219)



  200. Is not one of the things that is going to reinforce that divergence an appointed House of Lords which is the great and the good and the chattering masses of Islington rather than somebody out of a council estate in any town outside London you might care to mention? We are going to be putting in the House of Lords the same sort of people who are already there and keep that divide in existence.
  (Mr Cook) If I may just say so, I think the question conflates two separate problems. One is the character of the people who are appointed. I do think that the Stevenson Commission have been unfairly criticised on this because they were given a remit and their remit was to find people of distinction who could bring authority and expertise to the House of Lords. It naturally follows from giving them that remit that they are going to produce people who have achieved status and position. I think that they did extremely well in the people whom they chose and we have now in the House of Lords the Chief Executive of Childline, the Chief Executive of Centre-Point, a trustee of Oxfam, people who probably would not have got there under the previous appointments system and certainly would probably never have stood for election and that is welcome. There is a second issue which is the regional distribution and there does appear to be evidence that membership of the House of Lords is skewed to the South East and the magical London to Bristol ellipse. That is, of course, one of the reasons for the Wakeham Commission recommending that we need to address the regional balance within the House of Lords and either direct elections or, perhaps even more strongly, indirect elections would go a long way to meeting that need.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  201. Can I ask you about having joint committees between the Lords and the Commons. Would it not be advantageous to be able to sit down and discuss exactly where this is going? You have put out a White Paper, there is obviously broad disagreement among a lot of people as to where this is going to end up. Would it not be better to set up a joint committee to start this ball rolling to decide what the House is going to be like at the end of all this and try to work the other way round?
  (Mr Cook) There were repeated offers in the last Parliament of a joint committee but it never happened because we could never agree on the remit of a joint committee. Those offers were made by the Government and it was not for want of trying on the Government's part that we did not actually get a joint committee. As to where we are now, frankly I think that the important issue now is the consultation period followed by a period of reflection and debate on it. I have never ruled out that at some point it may be appropriate to have a joint committee but I think we need to consider where we are going to find that centre of gravity before we establish a joint committee to examine the proposals.

  202. But is that not the problem, that we are not establishing a centre of gravity? Everybody has their own ideas, you just look around here and we have all got different ideas, never mind in all the other places. Would it not be an idea to try to find the centre of gravity where we are going to end up at the end of the day to see what the Other Place is going to do at the end of the day and what its remit will be in, say, five or ten years' time?
  (Mr Cook) I am not opposed in principle to joint committees and, as I say, it may well be at some stage appropriate to have it but I do not honestly think we are at the stage to do it now. A joint committee meeting in the abstract is not going to find its time used very valuably or credibly. Most joint committees we have appointed so far have been there to examine a proposal, usually legislation. I think we need to reflect on what that proposal might be first.

  203. Can I just ask one question on elections. You are proposing Model B out of Wakeham which is 87 elected members, 16 per cent, elected on proportional representation at the time of each European Parliament election. Do you not think that we are going to go down a line where you are going to have regionalisation, like election for a European Parliament? You are not getting a cross-section of the people you want to encourage in. You will be down a party line and, therefore, under whipping and all the rest of it. Are you not just going to create an interfering chamber at the other end because it is not going to be based on the people who perhaps have the best knowledge, it will go down a party system, closed or open, and, therefore, they will be more like us at this end and it is going to be much more like an interfering second chamber?
  (Mr Cook) First of all, it is true that the proposal stems from Model B in Wakeham but we did in the White Paper quite specifically say that we saw problems with basing it on the European Parliamentary elections, the most obvious of which is these are the elections that have the lowest turnout in the calender and, therefore, they may not be the wisest choice for a new innovation. We therefore proposed that the elections should go alongside General Elections or, and we did note this as one variance of pattern, where there are regional elections or national elections, Scotland, Wales or London, that possibly the election of the members of the second chamber could take place on that day in those parts of the United Kingdom which would give those elected a much stronger regional dimension. To come to the nub of your point, first of all our proposal is that we should have mixed membership and that there should be that route into the House other than by election. Not simply because of party political considerations but because the reality is there are many people in Britain who actually would not find it an enjoyable experience standing for election. Those of us who do are perhaps an eccentric minority, we enjoy it, we relish it, but we are a minority. It is not to everybody's taste to stand for election and we should leave open the door for people of distinction to come into the Lords without requiring them to go through that process of election, and we did that. On Thursday I robustly defended an outcome for the second chamber which was a mixed membership. At the same time I find the discussion about party democracy, which is what we enjoy in Britain, a little bit odd. We know that the public out there are strongly attached to their democratic right and to their individual vote for an MP for an individual area. We know that it is the cornerstone of our constitution. We also know that ever since the days of the mass franchise the only possible way in which you can practically organise this is by parties who contest elections as parties with candidates chosen and standing locally. I, therefore, find myself a little bit impatient of the view that because people are elected, and therefore necessarily members of a political party, that we have somehow deprived the organisation of life, of debate, of substance, of people of calibre. I have been a professional politician for 30 years and I am not ashamed of it.

Mr Prentice

  204. Robin, I am interested in where the centre of gravity lies.
  (Mr Cook) So am I.

  205. We are both Labour MPs and we both get these messages on our pagers that tell us we do not co-operate in surveys of any kind. I just wonder how the Government should define the views, determine the views, of Members of Parliament? There is a consultation period that ends on 31 January but do you think there is a place for a more systematic survey of the views of Members of Parliament? I say that in the context of what the Prime Minister said, that there are as many solutions, blueprints, as there are MPs.
  (Mr Cook) This is not something to which we can find the answer by opinion poll and it is not going to be done by an arithmetical formula, but plainly debate, discussion and exchange of views are essential to that process of trying to find what it is that the market will bear and, indeed, what it is that the market will be enthusiastic about. That process of dialogue and exchange has been going on since November 7 and I am sure will continue for some time to come.

  206. We are all interested in the end point of this exercise. You told us just a few moments ago that the Government is not ready yet for a joint committee, that is what you said. I just wonder how long you see this process taking because you told us earlier that after the end of the consultation period there would be a period of reflection.
  (Mr Cook) It would be, I think, quite wrong to appoint a joint committee during the consultation period. I think it would be entirely proper that at the end of that consultation period, whatever the outcome response has been, we should reflect on what we have heard in the course of that consultation. I do not honestly think that there is anything contentious or improper in me saying at this stage that in the light of what we have heard so far, and are likely to hear in the next two weeks, that that period of reflection should not be rushed.

  207. That does not take us much further forward, Robin. I wondered the extent to which the new Conservative policy has changed the nature of the debate?
  (Mr Cook) The new Conservative policy is interesting. It has its own problems. I cannot say I recognise the proposition that Surrey should have as many people returned to represent them as London as democracy as I understand it. We certainly would wish to hear more about it and enter into discussion about it. What is also not clear to me yet, Gordon, is the extent to which that front bench policy commands consensus within the Conservative Party.

  208. Maybe they ought to survey the opinions of the Conservative MPs.
  (Mr Cook) That is a matter open for them.

  209. Do you think that there would be any merit just in moving this thing on in the Government publishing a Bill, and as I said in the debate last Thursday maybe a multi-option Bill, which would allow the Commons, and subsequently the Lords, to actually vote on proposals?
  (Mr Cook) I can see merit in a draft Bill and, indeed, had the White Paper commanded a successful response in the consultation I would have thought that the next logical step would be to translate that into a draft Bill. Whether we can go from here to a draft Bill in the course of February is a very open question. You raised the point about, as it were, a multi-choice question. In some sense that is inevitable whether or not the Government puts it in the Bill because any Bill will be amendable and any figure in the Bill can have alternatives put down to it. Therefore, as and when we get to any point of legislation there will be that process of amendment and vote in the Chamber. I myself would much rather that we took some time before we wrote the Bill to find a figure which would provide, as best we can achieve it, the centre of gravity that I am hoping for because I do not want the Bill wrecked in the process of going through the House.

  210. Just two quick points. On the Stevenson Commission that gave us the People's Peers, we are not going to get a new Appointments Commission, are we, it is going to be the Stevenson Commission put on a new statutory basis?
  (Mr Cook) Not necessarily. We have committed ourselves in the White Paper, and for those who accept a case for independent appointments this is not contentious, it is of course contentious for those who want a wholly elected chamber, for those who accept the case for mixed membership the concept of a statutory independent commission is one that is in itself not contentious. It does not necessarily need to be the present members of the Stevenson Commission, although some of them will have the experience and position which will make them appropriate for membership.

  211. My final question is this. We had Lord Norton before us just a few moments ago and he was talking about the asymmetric nature of the British constitution. I was interested in what you told us about having indirect election from the regional bodies, if and when they are set up, and the devolved institutions. What does the Scottish Parliament, and you will have colleagues there, think about the possibility of legislation passed in Edinburgh being subject to scrutiny by the Westminster Parliament, the second chamber of the Westminster Parliament?
  (Mr Cook) I think they would take the view that this would be a defeat for devolution, the point of which was these issues should be settled by elections in Scotland and then carried through by people elected by the Scottish people to which part of Britain that legislation is confined.

  212. So it is up to the Scottish Parliament to decide whether or not they participate in this UK Parliament?
  (Mr Cook) I do not see it happening unless they express an opinion and as yet, as far as I am aware, they have not expressed a view.

Kevin Brennan

  213. Just a follow up on that point about indirect elections. I just wanted to probe what you have in mind there or what perhaps the understanding is of what we are talking about. Are you actually talking about there being the possibility of some kind of electoral college formed by the members of the National Assembly for Wales, for example, or the Scottish Parliament or, in future, English Regional Assemblies, which would then elect from amongst their number, perhaps rather like in the Irish system, some of the members of the second chamber, or are you thinking directly of members of those institutions actually serving in the second chamber?
  (Mr Cook) I shall honestly and sincerely try to give a truthful answer to your question but I begin with a very strong health warning that anything I say is my own personal thoughts on the matter, it is not an issue on which the Government has a collective view and, indeed, in the White Paper we did not propose indirect elections as the way forward. It is a question of whether we will have to revisit that in the light of whatever responses we get to consultation. Therefore, this must not be read as any statement of collective wisdom. The option I would have thought more likely that we would wish to go down, if we go down that route, is to allow each of the bodies themselves to choose a representative without making it that kind of collective electoral college that you have described. As to whether the people who would be elected were from their own number or from outside it, frankly that is a matter that personally I would be content to leave to them and I do not think it is necessarily for us to prescribe from the centre. I stress, Chairman, that we have made no proposal on that and there is no collective view on that.

  214. One of the points you made earlier about the fact that there has not been a proactive approach, for example, from the National Assembly for Wales on this issue is because it only has 60 Members and they are very fully employed in the structure they have. They can barely get enough Members to serve on all the committees and so on because it is quite a small body. I think it is less well understood that what might be a possible proposal in this area, accepting it is not a Government proposal, is that they should elect from outwith their number representatives from Wales or from Scotland and so on. Are you satisfied that during the Wakeham consultation process, for example, and Lord Wakeham's report, that that sort of possibility was sufficiently explored and that the devolved bodies are aware that that might a route for having an influence in the second chamber?
  (Mr Cook) I cannot speak for Lord Wakeham, and I am sure he is quite relieved by that, but, in fairness to everybody, when he was carrying out his survey of opinion it was very early in the life of the devolved bodies and, indeed, I do not think the matter was ever formally put to the Scottish Parliament, so there is a case now for revisiting it to find out if those bodies have achieved their own sense of coherence, identity, have experience of running affairs and have people who wish to be here. The question of size is a very relevant one and in those circumstances it may indeed be proper for them to think about electing somebody who is not one of their number. It would apply with even greater force in the case of the Greater London Assembly, which is a small assembly, which, were it to go down this route, may wish to look for people to elect who are people of status in London but not necessarily one of their own number. As I say, all of this is kite flying, there is no proposal by the Government for indirect elections and there will not be unless there is a vigorous expression of opinion on that point.

  215. Can I just return to the issue of the composition and the percentage that could be directly elected. One argument that I have heard put forward by the Government is that it is difficult to get more than 20 per cent of the body directly elected because of the problem of the existing number of life Peers and in order to expand the number of directly elected Members you would have to grossly inflate the size of the second chamber in a way that would be unacceptable to the public. Would you agree that it is the case that insufficient thought has been given to the possibility of making redundant, perhaps on a voluntary basis, a large number of the current life Peers, many of whom do not actively participate much in the work of the House of Lords, and if they were offered a sufficient package would be quite willing to go? In fact, it could represent a saving to the public purse when one takes into account the prospect of paying expenses into the future. Would that not be one way of unblocking the objections that you might expect to encounter when these proposals come in front of the House of Lords?
  (Mr Cook) We did put in the White Paper a proposal for a voluntary severance scheme, if I can put it in those terms, and indeed we have something of that same idea within the House of Commons where we do have a resettlement grant for Members who are defeated. I am not in a position to know, and indeed neither are my colleagues in the House of Lords because nobody has yet posed the question to life Peers, how many that might bring forward to stand down from membership of the House, but it is a concept that we have already endorsed and we think maybe it would be helpful in bringing down the numbers of the House. Can I just say that, for me, I think the important issue now is that we try and get in our minds the design of the end state we are in. By necessity there will be a prolonged period of transition until we arrive there but I think that we can try and achieve some kind of coherence perhaps rather than consensus about what it is we all want to arrive at that at some point in the future. I think most people would have an understanding of the transitional period that is necessary to get there.

Mr Lyons

  216. Can I go back to the beginning, Robin. You opened by saying that so far in the consultation the tenor seemed to indicate that the proportion to be elected was too small. Was the tenor saying anything about the size of the second chamber?
  (Mr Cook) Can I give a sort of health warning to start. I do not think it would ever be sensible to try and tabulate responses by numbers because necessarily we are dealing with responses which are to some extent self-selecting, to some extent are not comprehensive in what they say, and sometimes in the nature of opinion are self-contradictory. Anybody who has listened to the debate that we had in our place, who has studied what has been said in the press and looked at some of those responses that have come in, would recognise that there is a body of opinion that we should be looking at something that is smaller than that proposed. I recognise that in the real world we start out from a second chamber which is nearly 800, 750 I think. Until the abolition of most of the hereditary Peers in the last Parliament it was a body, certainly in paper membership, of over 1,100. The trend is downward and the trend will continue to be downward. We have, perhaps, to be realistic about how far we can achieve that downward trend. We are not in the position where happily we were in Edinburgh of devising a Scottish Parliament from scratch.

  217. Do you have any particular view about whether people should be part-time or full-time members?
  (Mr Cook) I do not think we should be prescriptive about that, after all we are not prescriptive about it in the House of Commons either. If you have direct elections, some of those who are elected will approach their jobs as certainly their main occupation. However, if you want to attract to the second chamber people who have achieved distinction, and can from that experience and authority give a valuable perspective to the debates, we cannot insist that they become full-time. First of all, you will sharply reduce the number of people willing to come forward in those circumstances and, secondly, it is unnecessary. For instance, I would not have wanted the Chief Executive of Childline or the Chief Executive of Centre-Point to give notice on the day they were appointed by the Stevenson Commission. I think that in their cases it is entirely appropriate that they should become members so they can contribute as and when they feel they wish to contribute without necessarily doing the job full-time or indeed being required to do the job full-time.

  218. Can I just go back to the question of the Appointments Commission. Is there not a case to be made for appointments to be made on a regional basis, Scotland, Wales or wherever, rather than one central body of nomination or appointment?
  (Mr Cook) I think you do need to have one national body of appointment if you are going to do it at all because there are a number of considerations of balance to be achieved. But, we have said, having regard to regional balance will be one of the criteria we will be imposing as a duty on the new statutory body.

Mr Trend

  219. I think many of us do regret that there was not a commission between the two Houses before the process got under way. We are dug into trenches on this one so it is not worth revisiting. For many people the argument actually begins before this process about how you divvy up if you are going to change the relationship between the two Houses and what character you want the second chamber to have. Indeed, our Chairman made a very raising speech in the House of Commons recently about the balance of power between Parliament itself and the Executive and how the whips in the Commons essentially can control the business that they want. We heard from various Peers today and last week that one of the fears that the current Lords have, who all seem to want to keep the same relationship between the Houses now and who want to keep the same character as the House has now, which in the opinion of one of the Peers raised the question of why change it at all. How are you going to stop, do you wish to stop, the influence of the whips growing in the House of Lords to such a point where party allegiance becomes the important factor and it becomes a very different sort of chamber?
  (Mr Cook) I think we are possibly being a little bit naive about the absence of party affiliations in the present second chamber. I think there are two separate issues here. The first is that if we want to have a democratic chamber with people directly elected then the vehicle for doing that is through the process of people standing as candidates for a party on the policy platform of a party that is nationally understood. It does not preclude people standing in their own right, and indeed we have at least one case in this Parliament where somebody was elected on that basis. The second question concerns those that might be appointed independently and for myself, actually, I have no problem in taking a view that those who are appointed independently should not take the party whip and, indeed, whatever their own private views should be, they should be outside that process of the party machine.

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