Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)




  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 process.

  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 Democrats—Shirley Williams was before you previously—have 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 numbers question.
  (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 retirement—I 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 them—it 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 Commons—I think it is difficult to duplicate the Commons, it is certainly very easy to avoid—that 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 to tolerate.

  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 changed—and 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.

Mr Prentice

  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 your appointment?
  (Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) From memory, it was sometime ago, Richard Wilson was the Chairman and there were four outsiders.

  334. You remember?
  (Lord Stevenson of Coddenham)—I think he asked one question.

  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.

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