Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320
THURSDAY 24 JANUARY 2002
320. Good afternoon, all, thank you very much
for coming and talking to us as our next group of witnesses. I
apologise we have had to ask people to come in in panels or groups,
it is simply because we are battling against a consultation deadline
that the government have set, normally we would have done it in
a more relaxed way. I am sorry about this. As you saw from the
last session sometimes it works quite well. I think I would find
it helpful if you could all, if you wanted to, just begin, as
the last group did, in a nutshell, no more than a minute, or so,
essentially say broadly where are you coming from in terms of
the whole issue of forming the second chamber and then your quick
reading of where you think we are at in terms of the developing
the argument at the moment. Would you like to start, Lord Stevenson?
I know you speak from a particular angle.
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) A very
particular angle. You have received a very factual briefing document,
if I might add three brief points, which do not necessarily meet
your question but I think are relevant. First, amidst all of the
talk about different commissions, which is rightly going on at
the moment, we think it is important to emphasise the quite limited
role of our commission, the Interim Appointments Commission. Our
main task has been, and is, to take the process previously carried
out behind closed doors in Number 10 and make it in effect into
a proper, transparent and meritocratic job application process.
It is a much smaller task than the task outlined for the Statutory
Commission outlined in the White Paper and a very, very much smaller
task than the roll outlined in Wakeham. Secondly, I think in view
of the very considerable public discussion about `People's Peers'
we feel that we would like to make plain that this Commission
received a precise brief from the government as to what our role
is and it contained no reference to `People's Peers'. Our remit,
as I believe Robin Cook re-emphasised to you in evidence last
week, to use his own words is to find people of distinction to
bring authority and expertise to the House of Lords. Finally,
I think an important perspective is to say the job we are doing
is very new, it is something which has gone on for a very long
time in a completely different way and our energies as a Commission
have been, and are, concentrated on that important, but limited,
role. We do not believe we have any locus, to respond to your
question, to become involved in the policy issues as a Commission.
Whereas individual members may, we do not seek that locus.
321. Can you remind us how you came to be appointed
to chair the Appointments Commission?
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) It was a standard post
Nolan procedure, there was an open competition, it was advertised,
there was a job description, people applied, and a group of four
independent people, chaired by the head of the Civil Service interviewed
us. It was the new way of appointment.
322. You saw the advertisement, did you?
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) I was rung up by the
firm who were managing the process, I did not see the advertisement,
these people drew it to my attention and I applied. I filled in
a standard form, I sent in the form. It was a job application
323. Thank you very much.
(Lord Weatherill) Mr Chairman, if one wants to be
thoroughly democratic I suppose you should have a fully elected
upper house, patently that, in my view, is not on for obvious
reasons, the obvious threat to the Commons. The one thing I strongly
approve of is the Wakeham Commission's recommendation, "no
political party should hold a majority in the Upper House"
ie. that the balance of influence would be with the cross-bench
peers. I think it is now clearly established this should be 20
per cent, if we were going to have an elected Upper House one
would say, 80 per cent elected and 20 per cent independent peers.
I have to say, I am not in favour of that. I think the present
House of Lords is working really very well and I would be inclined
to leave it as it is, as a fully appointed Upper House, for reasons
which I can readily disclose to you later on in the evidence.
324. That is most helpful. I am sure we will
want to come back to you, particularly because of your experience
in both houses.
(Mr Tyler) I have been following the evidence given
to you and obviously participating, to some extent, in debate
as well. It would seem that the objection which Lord Weatherill
has just made to a predominantly elected House centres round the
issue of challenge to the first House, that somehow or other giving
the Second Chamber an alternative legitimacy undermines the legitimacy
of this House, and the predominant position in our constitution
of the House of Commons. We do not buy that. We Liberal DemocratsShirley
Williams was before you previouslyhave said quite clearly
to you, and we have put this in a paper, which I hope your clerk
has for members of your Committee, we believe that the two Houses
are complementary partners in the continuing, perhaps, increasing
task of holding the executive to account. It is not a question
of challenge between the two, it is both of us joining to do our
job in terms of the Executive. We do believe that there is a dangerous
possibility, even in that context, of cloning the Commons, not
having a complementary partner, but having something that is too
close to the Commons but would exaggerate some of its worse defects.
Just to illustrate that point, how easy it is to fall into that
trap, I asked the House of Commons library to do an analysis of
what would have happened in the year 2001 if the House of Lords
was elected on a first past the post basis for the constituencies
that were indicated in the Conservative proposals which Eric Forth
was talking about just now. If I tell the Committee there would
be no Conservatives in the North-East, none in London, none in
Scotland and none in Wales you already see a major distortion.
If I go on to explain that there would be no Labour members in
the Southeast then you begin to see the point Mr Brennan was making
earlier, with large constituencies and first past the post you
not only replicate the Commons but you make it a great deal worse
in terms of its representative nature. I should also say, this
is special pleading, my own party, the Liberal Democrats, would
be pushed down from the 18 per cent to 19 per cent it gets in
the electorate to some four per cent of seats. Bear in mind, this
would not only have happened in 2001 but roughly the same would
have happened in 1997. The irony of the situation was that the
very danger that Eric Forth was indicating would happen regularly,
ie the House of Lords would not be a proper House of scrutiny
and reflection, it would simply be the House of Commons, large
and worse. That, in our view, would be a very considerable problem.
While we certainly do now welcome the gathering consensus about
the predominantly elected nature of the Second Chamber we are,
frankly, dismayed at the idea that we could end up with something
even worse that we have in the Commons
325. That is very helpful. Can I ask you one
thing before we leave you, we have just received a paper from
your party in the Lords setting out in actuarial terms how we
might get from where we are now to where we might want to be,
that is a smaller House, predominantly elected as your party wants
it. I wonder if you would say a word about that and tell us if
you think that you have answered the great conundrum in all of
this, which the Lord Chancellor has told us is the great block
to any further development in the elected element vis-a-vis the
(Mr Tyler) I hope you will also be able to put this
question to him because he will be before you later.
326. We have some questions for him too.
(Mr Tyler) I think it is going to be fascinating to
see whether he comes as the giver of the kiss of life to the dead
parrot or whether he is coming as the mortuary attendant, which
ever it is going to be he may be in a better position to give
you advice on this. My colleague Lord Oakeshott does indicate
that there is one area of variance, which is very important, that
is whether we can devise a package for voluntary retirementI
am choosing my words with great care, I used the word "redundancy"
earlier in the week and my noble friends were not pleased with
that, a package for voluntary retirement or a method which was
discussed earlier this afternoon of electing from the remainder,
which could vary the figures dramatically. We are convinced that
a smaller House over a period of 12 years is perfectly possible.
(Mr Tyrie) You know my views, but I will rehearse
them again, I hope I do not bore you too much. I think the whole
debate revolves round answers to three simple questions and is
far less complicated than is commonly alleged. The first question
is whether we need a second chamber or whether there is a strong
uni-cameralist case. I agree with you on that issue, Chairman,
when you said the day before yesterday that a central problem
in our constitution now is the need to find a better means of
holding an ever more powerful Executive to account. The second
question is, what powers does a Second Chamber need to perform
that role? There, I think, broadly, the existing powers will do.
The problem is that those powers are not used because the existing
Chamber does not have the courage to use themit does not
have the legitimacy to do so, and never has. That is why I strongly
disagree with Lord Weatherill when he says things are all right
as they are. We are in a virtually uni-cameralist state at the
moment. What we have is little more of a consultative quango,
a quango appointed on blatant patronage. The third question is,
what composition? The answer to the third question flows from
the answer to the second, what composition is required to enhance
legitimacy? It must be democracy or, largely, democracy. Most
of the counter arguments to that, apart from the unicameral one,
are beginning to look to me like the procession of straw men.
Indeed Geoffrey Howe was articulating some of these only the other
day that it would duplicate the CommonsI think it is difficult
to duplicate the Commons, it is certainly very easy to avoidthat
it might generate grid lock at election; that it will become a
repository dustbin for politicians that have failed in all other
chambers and that even if we do go ahead with reform we must reform
the Commons simultaneously. Since that is virtually impossible
it is an argument for doing nothing. Then there are the constitutional
engineers who say, it is all terribly technically difficult to
think of some electoral system that would work or to make transitional
arrangements work. That is all described as the conundrum. It
is not beyond the realm of common sense to find answers to all
of these problems. The great change that has taken place over
the past few months in the debate is there is now a growing willingness
to compromise and a willingness to find a consensus. The main
fabricators of the straw men are, of course, the people with the
biggest vested interest in seeing the least change, they are the
life peers. I think we have all to be prepared to challenge those
vested interests if we are going to get a Second Chamber worthy
of that name in Britain.
327. Do you share Eric Forth's view when he
says that he contemplates grid-lock with equanimity?
(Mr Tyrie) One needs to think that through carefully.
We have a Parliament Act which limits the amount of grid-lock.
We have only ever had grid-lock once, and that was to frame the
rules that led to the Parliament Act of 1911. Unless, and I think
it is extremely unlikely, one can envisage such circumstances
where the Commons can be cajoled into overturning the Parliament
Act the Commons will get its way in a year, come what may. If
that is grid-lock, a year's delay, that is grid-lock I am prepared
328. I want quickly, if I may, to ask Lord Stevenson
a couple of things and then ask colleagues to come in. There was
much controversy about the list, and so on, I did notice at the
time of all that a letter in the Guardian, it happened
because I recognised the name at the bottom of it as somebody
I have known for years, who has worked for the National Consumer
Council, a general community activist and somebody I respect greatly.
This was a letter about the House of Lords reform argument. She
said in it, "Last year's fiasco" referring to all that,
"was far worse from the inside even than it appeared outside,
a pathetic combination of secrecy and incompetence from beginning
to end. Failed applicants, I was one, received a letter intended
to tell them the outcome in advance, posted the day before the
announcement by second class mail". I would only give credence
to that because I happen to know the person who wrote it. Is that
not rather alarming?
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) Two observations. First,
the process was not conducted in secrecy, quite the reverse. We
took something that had previously been conducted in complete
secrecy and, subject only to the confidentiality of the applicant,
we conducted it openly. Where I have a lot of sympathy with her
letter is that we had, I think, the best intentions in writing
the letters. What we decided, after much consideration, was that
we wanted everyone to get their letters at the same time, on the
same day and it was planned and plotted with a lot of carefulness,
so as to minimise cost to the Exchequer, etcetera, etcetera. The
truth is that the postal system was very variable. I have the
greatest sympathy. I saw the letter myself and, whereas I disagreed
with some of the more extreme words she used about the process,
I was sympathetic to her experience.
329. I was struck by the fact that this seemed
to be the sort of person you ought to be appointing and you were
not, because you appointed people who it may be said would have
been appointed by the system anyway, and then it seemed to operate
in this way which brought discredit to the system.
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) Can I comment on that?
You imply a couple of other questions in that. As I said in my
introductory statement, we were asked to do something quite simple
and quite limited, if important, that is to take a process that
had previously been done behind closed doors and turn it into
a normal job application process that was both transparent and
meritocratic. We had a lot of very good applications, yes, there
were a lot of others who were extremely good.
330. If we were to be presented with a reform
package for the Second Chamber that involved vast numbers of appointees,
that may or may not turn out to be the case, and there would therefore
be an Appointments Commission charged with the task of appointing
vast numbers of appointees I would like to know from your preliminary
and interim experience how easy you think it is to find such people,
who are not just the predictable ones that would have been found
by any other route?
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) There is a presumption,
which I understand, that if you run a completely open and meritocratic
application process you will get the predictable people from another
route. I would not agree with that. I think if you are running
a complete fair meritocratic, open job application process it
would be bizarre and extremely worrying if some of the people
who emerged were not the people that had come under another route.
I think it would equally be rather worrying if it did not spread
the net wider. In answer to your straight question, the only evidence
I have to go on is that the quality of the 3,000 plus people we
received, which was very high indeed.
331. You or your successor statutory body could
deliver vast numbers of distinguished appointees.
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) I think that is loading
it if I may. I said at the beginning we fulfilled our brief. We
had a very precise brief, which Robin Cook defined quite clearly
to you last week. We were asked to do a specific job and we did
it and we are doing it. Let us say the brief changedand
there was an interesting interchange between Mr Prentice and Robin
Cook, where Mr Prentice asked, "Could the brief be different?"
to which the answer is, "Yes". If I can take your question
and re-phrase it and say, either in relation to the brief we have
got or in relation to a different brief, do I think from what
we have learned that it would be possible for an Appointments
Commission to run a normal job application process that could
try and persuade people that, does that brief apply? Yes.
332. I have a few questions for Lord Stevenson
first. I am interested in who appoints the Appointments Commission.
You said that you responded to an advertisement, there was panel
of four, I think you said.
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) Plus a chair.
333. What role did Sir Herman Ouseley play in
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) From memory, it was
sometime ago, Richard Wilson was the Chairman and there were four
334. You remember?
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham)I think he asked
335. Were you surprised when Sir Herman Ouseley
was subsequently ennobled?
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) No, since he was ennobled
on our recommendation.
336. He was ennobled on your recommendation.
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) Yes. Just to cut straight
to the quick, let me make this quite clear. As you will know if
you examined our site we have very elaborate, I do not know of
any more elaborate, procedure for ensuring that conflicts are
declared, relations are declared and propriety is observed. Propriety
was observed in every step along the way, in the nomination of
Sir Herman Ouseley.
337. You have no regrets?
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) That is putting it emotively.
We were asked to run a detached, professional, open and meritocratic
appointments job application process and we did. He applied and
in due process went through, including the due process of declaring
previous contacts, etc, etc.
338. Nobody is going to be emotional here, do
you regret the comments that you made about hairdressers not being
able to cut-it in the House of Lords?
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) If I can respond in
a very straightforward way.
339. That is what we would like.
(Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) I was asked the question,
could a hairdresser get into the House of Lords? I said, "Yes".
We were running a job application process and it is open to anyone
to apply for it.