Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)



  300. So we might hear more on that. Fiona, would you finish on this?
  (Fiona Mactaggart) I am a supporter of a more proportional electoral system wherever we can apply it but the only argument that I think compels any respect for a first-past-the-post system is that it gives you a clear majority government. So I think there is no argument for the second chamber, which is the scrutinising chamber, not the chamber that is fundamentally the chamber from which the government is drawn, to have a first-past-the-post electoral system. I would take any opportunity to have a fair electoral system for any new elections, but I think the argument for the Lords is particularly compelling. I think that one of the weaknesses of British politics is a kind of tribalism which does not allow me to say you are right when you are on the other side of the gangway. You know, the first day I arrived in the House of Commons I sat on the Liberal benches because there was not any room left on the Labour benches. You have never seen a whip move faster. That was because you are not allowed to do that. You have to sit with your gang and not with the other gang, because the other gang is wrong. I find these kinds of politics a little alienating, and I think that most of my constituents do. I am absolutely in favour of a system which allows us to respect that which is good in people who are generally wrong and to work with them for the good of all. One thing I do think there is an issue about, though, is when two people can claim to represent the same group of people. I represent a constituency completely surrounded by Conservative parliamentary constituencies. I have no other party who is a neighbour. One of the things that I quite often encounter is people who want me to represent them because they feel closer to my party than the people who are their elected representatives. They try and persuade me to take up their case, and I do not do that because I do not think it is right. One of the things which actually keeps politicians in the Commons straight is not just the party system but it is also that we have a duty to all of our electorate. I think that we need to maintain that function in the Commons, of us as advocates of our individual electorates. That absolutely should not be a function of the Lords because I think we will find that phenomenon happening, people picking and choosing who they wish to be their advocate, in a way which would mean that the people who are perhaps in professions or have problems which feel closer to one party will go and talk to that party's elected representative; the people who feel closer to another party will talk to them. What will happen is that that will just reinforce us in our own ignorance and prejudices, instead of teaching us about the whole glorious gamut of the British people. I strongly believe that the second chamber should be more proportionally elected but I also absolutely think that they should not have a role as advocates for their constituents.

Mr Lyons

  301. I welcome the fact that you have come out with this proposal for 80 per cent. There are some who say it is nothing more than opportunism. I would like to suggest that maybe you feel the secret sometimes and you would share this with us? Which is it exactly?
  (Mr Forth) As I recall, a very senior distinguished colleague and a member of my party was kind enough to remind me when we had the debate a couple of weeks ago that I had been expressing a view about a wholly elected upper house two or three years ago. I am glad to say that on this my party has moved towards me and not the other way round. Let me make it clear that we have been very careful on this occasion, as is now the modern way in the Conservative Party, of sounding out our colleagues and understanding what they feel and moving forward on that basis. I can tell you that this is not just my view or Iain Duncan Smith's view or whatever. The position that we now have represents a centre of gravity or a medium position, if I can put it that way, in the parliamentary party in the Commons. To those people who say that the Conservative Party is now so clever and sophisticated and smart and its footwork is so quick that it will seize on an issue like this for momentary advantage, some of us might say, "I wish it were so". Actually on this occasion it is a carefully worked out and well-grounded policy position to which our Leader and we are very committed.


  302. It is clearly an outrageous suggestion but when Lord Strathclyde was here and entertained us last week I think he conceded that there was not a single Conservative peer supporting the position as documented. Indeed, he recommended that a bill of an elected kind would go through the second chamber without a single Conservative peer voting for it. May I suggest that there is total unanimity across the board.
  (Mr Forth) I did pick my words rather carefully and say "in the Commons", Chairman. I am more than content for my noble friend to speak for his house and for his colleagues in that house. I have some responsibility for the House of Commons and therefore I can only speak for them. It does raise a point—and this was touched on earlier—that one of the things I hope your Committee will give some thought to is the possible ways ahead on this bill because I do detect a rather unusual problem arising, and that is that we may well find that we have a surprising degree of consensus—I hate the word and will only use it once this sitting - on these and related issues. One can see this emerging across the parties. But equally I suspect there is an adverse or opposite consensus in their Lordships' house. How we in a parliamentary sense—when I say "we", how do government—primarily resolves this worries me because I can see a gridlock or deadlock between the Commons and Lords on this issue and we do not have a conciliation process, as the Americans do, to resolve it. That is a worry.

  Chairman: You approach it with equanimity,

Mr Lyons

  303. Going back to the question on the elections themselves, is there agreement in the Conservative Party that elections should be timed to coincide with the general election or staggered in between?
  (Mr Forth) No, I think that is something that we would be prepared to look at. There is a number of different approaches. One would be that at general election time, and in the piece that my Leader wrote and which I have here to inform me in case I go astray, there the implication is, in fact it says, that members should serve terms of office spanning through three parliaments, a maximum of 15 years. That leaves open the likelihood that general election time might be the time to do it, but I think equally a fixed electoral cycle to coincide with, say, the European elections, would have other advantages that we should not altogether ignore. So I guess these are going to be the two main options that people will look at. I do not think we are that fixed on either.

Mr Prentice

  304. I take it you all agree with David Lipsey, who was here two weeks ago, and said that the Government's proposals are a dead duck. Eric has just said a few moments ago that it could be difficult finding a mechanism to translate this emerging consensus into a bill or whatever. I would like to ask my two colleagues, Mark and Fiona, to let us have their views on this, getting where we are to where we all want to be.
  (Fiona Mactaggart) That is what is exercising me most at the present. I am rather cynical about whether the Conservative Party's policy was a genuine attempt to get a more democratic Lords but I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. I do not share Mark's analysis that it has made things easier. I think that it was intended to, and to some extent it had the effect of, dropping a stone in the pot and rocking it.

  305. I am trying to find a consensus here.
  (Fiona Mactaggart) The way to move forward is that first of all the Government has a commitment in its manifesto for a more democratic second chamber and I think we need to start from there. It needs to offer a draft bill which provides for that, and this Committee would be a very good committee to do some pre-legislative scrutiny on that draft bill to try to get those areas where there might be refinements to improve the way that it goes about things clearer, how it deals with gridlock and so on. When it comes to the proportion of membership, I think there may be a case for a bill which has options in it. One of the things that concerns me, however, is the order of any options. For example, what do people whose first preference is for no second chamber and whose second preference is perhaps for a largely elected second chamber do—and there are a number of people like that? Actually how you order any option—

  306. There are a lot of very brainy people out there who will be able to help draft the bill, I am sure, to take these things into account. Can I ask Mark the same question?
  (Mr Fisher) To your first question, it is not so much a bird as a parrot, and it is dead. The Government's proposals are dead. I think that we have got to get it right. To correct Fiona, I did not say that it made the Conservative debate easier. It changed it. It changed the parameters and I think raised the limit or the position of the horizon and people who thought it was pretty radical and daring to talk about the 40 per cent a few weeks ago, now see that that looks extraordinary timid. I think it changes it. I do not think it necessarily made it easier to find a resolution. It is important that again, without becoming too semantically precise, you cannot be more democratic. Democracy, like uniqueness or singularity, is not open to degrees or nuances. You either are democratic or you are not. You can have different types of democracy and different results but you cannot have a fairly democratic system. Either you believe in democracy or your do not.

  307. We have democracy in the Labour Party, Mark.
  (Mr Fisher) That is a type of democracy.

  Chairman: We have not got time to go into that either.

Mr Prentice

  308. I will wind this up then. Robin was here last week and he called for a period of reflection. We read in the press subsequently that there is not going to be anything coming forward from the Government in this session. How do we put pressure on the Government to bring forward a kind of multi-option bill or some other alternative to take things forward? Maybe I could ask Fiona to deal with that briefly.
  (Fiona Mactaggart) I think we start from the fact that we have a manifesto commitment. The one thing that I think probably unites us all is that inactivity on this issue is not acceptable. That has to be clear. That is the first thing. The second is that we should not underestimate the progress that has been made. You say that the proposals in the White Paper are a dead duck. They are, and that is significant in my view. It seems to me that the task which we really do have to take on is to persuade those who are putting it about that there are too many different ways for there ever to be a manner of resolving this that they are actually not right. If I could write a perfect bill, it would look very different from any bill that is likely to come up.

  309. I am just looking at the timetable, that is all.
  (Fiona Mactaggart) We get the timetable by making that political pressure obvious. One of the things which has got us here is not just the Conservatives' position but also the number of people who signed the Early Day Motion and who spoke within the Labour Party to the Chief Whip to say that this is an issue about which they care deeply.

  310. Let me put it this way: if this Select Committee, when it produces it report, were to say to the Government that we recommend that this matter should be resolved within the next couple of parliamentary sessions, you would agree that that would be an acceptable way forward because you are actually putting an end point to this endless discussion and debate that we have been having?
  (Mr Forth) Yes, I would agree with that but in the end this is going to come down inevitably to internal politics within the Labour Party because that is where political power lies right now. We will do our share of attempting to embarrass the government, in a consensual way, of course, in hoping to move the thing on. We made a genuine offer to the Committee. I am relaxed about it not being resolved this session, but the government will have to produce something at least in the next Queen's Speech to have any credibility in this issue.


  311. That is your view as well, Mr Fisher?
  (Mr Fisher) I do not think it is going to be resolved either in this session or the next session, but the important thing is that your Committee's report helps us to get to a very substantial next stage, and it will not be resolved or concluded until we have democracy. We may not get there now, but we can make a big strive forward. You asked how we take it forward, I do hope that your Select Committee will come forward with a very strongly worded and forthright report on an all-Party basis that looks at it in relation to the Commons and sees it as a matter of balancing Parliament and the Executive. In the second element, it is the people who should primarily be choosing it who should do that.

Mr Prentice

  312. One final question, very briefly, Chairman, this is to Eric Forth, because Eric Forth has come up with some pretty radical things—you said that yourself. Lord Strathclyde told us last week in response to a question from me, as it happens, that the Conservative proposals have lots of green edges. You said that you are pretty fixed on first past the post, but everything else is negotiable, that is what I am trying to establish. Good. The final point—
  (Mr Forth) I had better say yes for the sake of the record.

  Chairman: Can I interrupt you?

  Mr Prentice: You always do.


  313. I would like the record to be clear what it is we are being told, not long since, if I heard you right, you said that the voting system was non-negotiable and you told us that two thirds was non-negotiable. You have just told us that you approach this is in the spirit of, this delightful phrase, consensual embarrassment. I am not sure this is going to get us very far, is it?
  (Mr Forth) It is as good as it gets, Chairman.

Mr Prentice

  314. One final point, which is slightly beyond the Lords reform, what about the Prime Minister's prerogative powers, is that an issue? It does link in because of the power of patronage, that is how people get to the House of Lords, and so on. Are the Conservatives open about the possibilities of examining and coming forward with proposals on the Prime Minister's prorogative powers?
  (Mr Forth) In relation to the Lords or the Upper Chamber?

  315. In relation to the Lords and in relation to all sorts of matters. You have a fixation about the European Union?
  (Mr Forth) I certainly have.

  316. We have debated all of the treaties, Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam, but the Commons need not have, the government could have agreed them using the prerogative powers exercised by the Prime Minister. My question is, is that an area you think we ought to explore?
  (Mr Forth) That, and more. We have recently said that we think some sort of advice and consent role for Parliament would be a step forward, which has very interesting implications for the traditional role of an appointment, apparently, by basically the Prime Minister. Again, the answer to that question is, yes, we are way ahead of you on this.

  Mr Prentice: This is really radical stuff.


  317. I have one final question.
  (Mr Forth) Have you not had enough?

  318. Not quite, because you keep asking us to have more. When Lord Strathclyde was here he did readily say that the proposals that the party had come forward with were unfinished ones, indeed how could they not be, because they seemed to consist of an article in the Daily Telegraph and a press release. Not developed, we would say, so far. There was a particular issue that we raised with him, and I would like to raise with you, you want to get to a House of some 300 commendable objective, this requires doing something about a large numbers of life peers. I did ask Lord Strathclyde if he had a list of several hundred of his colleagues who he knew were prepared to throw themselves upon their swords for the sake of this and he did not have a list, I wonder if you have brought one.
  (Mr Forth) I have not. I did an analysis of the Lordships House and their average age by my figures is 67. There are 14 of them over 90; 74 between the age of 80 and 90; 76 over the age of 75; and 107 over the age of 70. That might give a clue to a possible starting point.

  319. I am not sure what you have in mind.
  (Mr Forth) The other possibility that I think should be looked at, and I hope your Committee does, Chairman, and it was mentioned by one of your own colleagues in the House in an intervention in my colleague's contribution to the debate, that is that the mechanism the hereditaries were invited to use might be re-examined for the life peers.

  Chairman: That was a very embracing session. Thank you very much indeed all of you.

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