Examination of Witness (Questions 200
THURSDAY 17 JANUARY 2002
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.
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
(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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.