Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 260 - 277)



  260. That would not happen because it would compound the disproportionality in the elected dictatorship built into the existing system. What Lord Wakeham did was to take the Mackay Commission proposal—
  (Lord Strathclyde)—That was on the general election date.

  261.—To see what would happen.
  (Lord Strathclyde) That is if you take the general election date, hence why we have offered a choice of it being on the European elections date.

  262. I suspect that these are unfinished proposals, are they not?
  (Lord Strathclyde) As I said earlier on, they are proposals on which to consult, certainly on some of these details such as the date of the election or exact constituency boundaries, and these are the kind of things that we would welcome people's views on.

Annette Brooke

  263. Following on from that, without going into the pros and cons of different voting systems, you did make a great deal of the point that reform of the House of Lords was to give it more legitimacy and enhance democracy. Do you regard your current proposals as compatible with those two objectives given, as my colleagues have pointed out, that "first past the post" with a large constituency is not going to reflect particularly well the overall wishes of the electorate?
  (Lord Strathclyde) On the whole, I think that people who are elected by the electorate have more authority and more legitimacy than those that are imposed by party leaders, so the answer to your question is yes I do.

  264. You do not feel tempted to look at a more perfect match between the people's views and the outcome?
  (Lord Strathclyde) You are, of course, enjoining me in a debate on proportional representation, which I hasten to add I do not wish to be drawn into. I think the proper place for that kind of discussion is within a joint committee of both Houses. When it comes to democracy versus appointment, we have clearly chosen democracy as being the way forward, although I should add that if you look historically at the House of Lords, since the Life Peerage Act was passed in 1958, there have been many excellent Members of the House of Lords appointed who have done a very good job. However, in the 21st Century the time has come to change and move on.

Mr Prentice

  265. There is a lot of cross-dressing on this issue and I think we ought to be relaxed about it—and I am not going to talk about hairdressers! On the point about flexibility, the Conservative proposals have got lots of green edges. Yes?
  (Lord Strathclyde) Yes.

  266. And am I right in thinking—and this is a point that my colleague Brian White touched on earlier—that you can carry Conservative Peers on these proposals?
  (Lord Strathclyde) I think that if you look at the debate, what was so remarkable about it was that no Peers on any side were particularly enthusiastic about democracy. In fact, the House of Lords is overwhelmingly opposed to more democracy of any shape, whether it is 20 per cent, 30 per cent or even 80 per cent. There are some of course who are in favour of it. That is why I say that what is so interesting about this debate is not the classic Tory/Labour/Liberal Democrat clash, it is that you get Eric Forth and Ken Clarke embracing each other over these proposals.

  Mr Prentice: I do not want to hear about that.


  267. Not a pretty sight!
  (Lord Strathclyde) On the other hand, you have people who want to maintain appointment, and for sometimes very different reasons. You have to remember what happened in 1969 when the coalition between Lord Powell and Michael Foot was created.

Mr Prentice

  268. I just want to get back to the House of Lords. I want you to tell me that the Conservative Peers do not have any power of veto here. You have talked about the joint committee and who is going to serve and I do not know if the joint committee is ever going to get off the ground. I just want you to reassure me.
  (Lord Strathclyde) Let me reassure you like this: if the Government wanted these proposals, 80/20, supported by the Liberal Democrats, they would not need a single Conservative vote in the House of Lords to get it. If the whole of the Conservative Party voted against it, it would not make the slightest bit of difference because it will go through.

  269. I will finish on this point, looking at the Conservative proposals here, it is a senate of much more than 300 members, is it not? You have got the 240 elected in the constituencies, the 60 independent senators, you keep the Law Lords (and I think there are over 40 of them when you look at the retired Law Lords as well as the 12 serving ones), you want to keep the 26 Bishops on the Bishops' Bench, you want to get people from other faiths in. I discussed this with Lord Wakeham last week. It is going to be quite a big senate, is it not?
  (Lord Strathclyde) I would view that the Law Lords and Bishops would form part of the 60. It is, after all, the Government's proposal that the Bishops should be reduced and I think the Bishops themselves have largely, but not entirely, agreed to that.

  270. No, they have not.
  (Lord Strathclyde) The Law Lords are a more interesting bunch because they have recently made a statement that the serving Law Lords do not wish to play a full part in every aspect of the workings of the House of Lords because they sit judicially. So perhaps they could sit but not vote until they retired. I think the retired Law Lords play a tremendous part in the second chamber and the remaining cross-benchers or independents would, of course, be made up, four terms of 15 years, of all the kinds of people that currently sit on the cross-benches.

  271. For your information, the fall-back position of the Church of England is a Bishops' Bench of 20. I will finish on this point about the Supreme Court. The Conservative Party says that the Law Lords should stay unless/until there is a decision to set up a separate Supreme Court. Does the Conservative Party have a policy on this as to whether there should be a separate Supreme Court?
  (Lord Strathclyde) No, and it is precisely so as not to get into that debate that I leave the Law Lords in the House. Of course, if there were a Supreme Court set up it would be different and it would change the figures.


  272. If your proposals come down from a chamber of 700, or down from a chamber of 800 now down to 300 as you propose it—and it is not, of course, explained in any detail in your paper—does it not require vast numbers of Peers to fall on their swords, and have you got people lined up ready to do this?
  (Lord Strathclyde) No. I think the current members of the House of Lords, including the massive influx of new Peers, like the red benches and are happy to stay there for as long as possible, at least for as long as they are required. We would have to introduce transitional arrangements. There are numerous ways of doing that. Lord Mackay recommended a transition by lot, choosing those who would be removed. The hereditary Peers were, of course, sifted out through election through the Weatherill Amendment. The Government have come forward with money, either in terms of resettlement grants or perhaps even pensions and while I think a "lot" would not gather very much support, perhaps a combination of the other two might work. Our proposals are premised very much on a transition over three election periods, removing a third/ a third/ a third of the current House.

Mr Trend

  273. Can I ask one specific question first. A number of people who have objected to the Opposition's plans have pointed to county constituencies having the same number of Members each and the point was made that that would mean three Members for Surrey and three Members for London. How does that work?
  (Lord Strathclyde) It is a very attractive concept and if we got support for it I think it could be a practical solution, but there are problems within it. Some people do have difficulty accepting the idea of the kind of example that you pointed out, which is why I said that in different parts of the country you might do different things. The important thing is to make sure you get something that is acceptable to the electorate, something which reflects historical customs and traditions, and makes sure that the people ultimately in the senate have the necessary authority and ability to represent their people forcibly and volubly in the new senate.

  274. I was trying to suggest that this had not got much support, in fact no support so far, in the sense that if you are following a conventional democratic representative line, then there has to be some sort of equality of numbers between the voters and the people who represent them. Having said that, I should say that I did not support the hereditary principle in public but in the raw carve up of power (which is what this is all about) I can understand why one might have done. Now I have moved before my party adopted an official position, I am glad to say, to an entirely elected system. Whether you have an entirely elected system for the second chamber or whether you have an 80 per cent, nevertheless it will change the character of the House profoundly. That is what most of the Peers have said and, as you and I know, most of the Peers would not wish to see that. Indeed almost everybody who appears before this Committee has said they do not really want to change the fundamental balance between the Houses in particular, they want to change the character of the House of Lords. All this is inevitable. If you have a large number of elected members it is going to be a totally different sort of House and it would regard itself as having a totally different mandate and a totally different job.
  (Lord Strathclyde) Yes.

  275. People have appeared before us earlier today trying to mitigate the facts of this logic—which is widely represented in the press as well—have tried to find ways in which they can restrain the powers in the House of Lords, ie keep the supremacy of the House of Commons. It has been suggested to us that there might be an age bar and nobody could join the House of Lords before 45 or 50 and therefore would not be trying to make a career in the House of Commons. It has been suggested to us, and certainly Robin Cook believes that the whips do not have much power anyway, which I thought was rather quaint, that somehow the whips could be restrained in a variety of different mechanisms being used. It seems to me that is unlikely in any case and the real world would mean the parties would operate as ferociously in the Lords eventually as they would in the Commons. Are there real ways in which one can try and restrain them?
  (Lord Strathclyde) No, I do not think so. I think you have to make a choice. If you want the character of the House to stay the same you leave it as it is. If you decide that it must change then you have to accept that the character of the House is going to change, new people will come forward. The House at the moment is a relatively old House, the average age I think is in the late sixties. People argue extremely effectively that is one of the strengths of the House. Geoffrey Howe said that the worst thing to do would be to end up with, he said—a memorable phrase—the clones of the clowns of the House of Commons. I thought it was gratuitously insulting to your House but there we are. The House would change if you came up with these proposals and you cannot keep things staying the same unless you leave the system the same. The House has already changed from a largely hereditary to an overwhelmingly appointed House. There is going to be further change in the character and the House will change with it.

  276. How would you anticipate changing the responsibilities of the two Houses in order to meet the problem that you have two Houses which both feel they have legitimacy?
  (Lord Strathclyde) The best feature of the House of Lords, of course, is that it does have a slightly more independent view so the whips do not have such an effect, why, because there is no de-selection and there is no re-selection. I am sure none of you would fall pray to these kinds of attacks from the whips but there is no purpose in the House of Lords because you are there for life. That was why we tried to build in—and that was common to Wakeham and to Mackay—a system whereby there was no re-selection and people were there for long terms. I think we do seek to replicate that independence and I think this is probably the best way of doing so which is why I think the thought that the Government are going to come forward with shorter terms and allow re-election, they fall into the trap of not improving or maintaining the strengths of the current House.


  277. I think we are just about done. Just a last exchange. Listening to you, I cannot help thinking that as you clearly seem to think that the existing House is rather good, to take Michael's point, why not just simply argue that we should keep it and therefore retain all these virtues that we have got because obviously it will be very difficult to get any agreement or is there some deep strategy here which is designed to produce this outcome?
  (Lord Strathclyde) If there were a strategy or a ploy, I would deny it, and since there is no great ploy or strategy I will deny it in any case! It would be a very high-risk strategy. After all, you might turn round and say, "This is such a good idea"—and I think it is rather good—"that we will put it into immediate effect," so I would be completely blown out of the water. I think the time for games of that type is long past. I think that the old 20th Century attitudes toward the House of Lords are long gone. The time has come to grasp the nettle and it is now for a responsible Opposition with the Liberal Democrats and the party of Government to try and come forward with a proper long-term solution.

  Chairman: That is clearly the note on which we should end and we are grateful to you for coming along to give evidence.

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