Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 379)



  360. I have your selection criteria here, it talks about the ability to make an effective and significant contribution to the work of the House. It talks about the time available to make an effective contribution within the procedures and the working practice of the House. If it is a job, how often has John Browne of BP attended, do you know?
  (Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) Out of the 15 that we nominated and appointed it takes time to be introduced and make your maiden speech, 13 so far have made their maiden speech. I gather that John Browne, and Stewart Sutherland, are looking for the right occasion to make their maiden speeches. It is worth saying, either you or Gordon Prentice asked the question—

  361. With respect, they are not looking very hard, are they? You appoint people to do a job. Your selection criteria says they are there to do a job and they do not do it. Then what happens to them?
  (Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) I think you are being a little unfair, Chairman.

  362. He has not been there!
  (Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) He has not yet made his maiden speech. What we said to every single nominee, we said this publicly, is that what we expect of them is that when subjects are being debated in the House on which they have relevant authority or expertise we very much hope they make it their business to make their authority and expertise available. I think it is entirely reasonable and proper that people, in looking to make their maiden speech, look for debates where they can talk about things they know about. It is entirely up to John Browne and Stewart Sutherland what they do. The Commission would have considerable confidence when you look over a five year period, as opposed to a period of a number of months on which you are basing your argument, that you will see they will make a contribution.

  363. You have to be in touch with these people to say, this is a bit of problem for us.
  (Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) With respect, it is not a problem. It is their obligation, of course. If in five years' time we noticed that John Browne had not played a part in the Lords, had not made a contribution—he is also one of the leading managers in the world and there is a lot he can contribute—then we would be extremely cross. We made the judgment that he will and I believe he will.

Mr Brennan

  364. I fear our other witnesses might be accused of not being working witnesses unless we turn to them at this point. Can I ask Paul Tyler, do you think that proportional representation is a fairer electoral system than first past the post?
  (Mr Tyler) Yes, I do and I think it is the only one that is possible in the context, for reasons that have been adduced earlier in the session.

  365. Can I ask you, you think it is a fairer system and gives more legitimacy, presumably, and yet in your submission you believe the second chamber should not infringe, if you like, on the primacy effect that we have in the House of Commons? How can you square that argument?
  (Mr Tyler) What I was going to go on to say is, it is not just fairness to the parties I am concerned about it is fairness to the electorate and to the nation as a whole. I think it is extremely important we have a complementary balance between two Houses. What I ought to have said earlier, and I apologise, the document from the library which may be of use to the Committee, shows that 60 per cent, 60 per cent of the House, the Second Chamber under the proposals of the first past the post system would have been Labour in both the last two elections. It would not be fair to the electorate, who obviously did not vote that way, and it would not be fair to the nation because you would have an unbalanced balance between the two Houses.

  366. You are suggesting that you believe that proportional representation would confirm legitimacy on a legislated body and yet you would be prepared to accept the notion that a body elected by the first past the post system, namely the House of Commons, the government, might have an overall majority with less than 40 per cent of the votes, shall we say, that that House would still have primacy over a House elected more recently under your proportional system.
  (Mr Tyler) I think there is a problem here and I understand where this question is coming from. It has been expressed and it has been very carefully answered by a number of your witness, not least Mark Fisher. The House of Commons elects, effectively, the government and those who vote in a general election know they are electing a government to the House of Commons. The great advantage of the single transferable vote in a multi member constituency is it gives the electorate a choice of representative without necessarily worrying specifically as to whether that is going to lead to the formation or the defeat of the government. It would make a sharp distinction between the two Houses that there were two quite separate electoral systems for the two Houses. That, I think, is an extremely important principle, it makes it easier for the two Houses to work together in a complementary way rather than to give them a potential of challenge and conflict.

  367. Can I ask Andrew Tyrie if you would be prepared or you are happy with the proposals, the Forth way, if you like, that we heard earlier on from Eric Forth, the current proposals that have been put forward by the Conservative Party?
  (Mr Tyrie) I do think that there needs to be some movement on behalf of my party in the electoral system as well as some of the other parties, if we are going to get a compromise. I am in favour of some form of proportional representation. I do not agree that is a fairer system, it is another system. All systems have advantages and disadvantages, the advantage of the first past the post system for electing the government is that you have judgment day, you have a day when a government can get kicked out, that is what happened in 1979 and 1997 in dramatic fashion. Furthermore, I think that the introduction of proportional representation in the House of Lords or in the Second Chamber, if was renamed the Senate, or whatever, would entrench the first past the post electoral system in the Commons, because you would not want to replicate identical electoral systems in both. I really think this is a great exaggerated problem.

  368. Can I ask Lord Weatherill whether or not he agrees with his noble colleague Lord Jenkins that never in his political experience has he seen the House, of which I am a member, the House of Commons, so bereft of talent and so full of people of little or no intellect, time serving clowns. Perhaps it is because of the record number of Liberal Democrats, I do not know! You have great experience of both Houses, do you think the current House, of which we are members, is so pitifully short of talent as my countryman Roy Jenkins believes?
  (Lord Weatherill) First of all, I should make it plain, of course I do not belong to Roy Jenkins party, I am an Independent. I disagree. Apart from Anthony Steen, who is not here today, I think none of you were in Parliament when I was there, 12 years ago now. I think the House of Commons has a lot of talent. I think probably there is no country in the world where we are more personally represented than we are in our Parliament. My concern is that members of Parliament spend too much time doing welfare jobs, surgeries, and that of thing, preventing them from being in the chamber and holding the government to account. If I may expand, Chairman, on my initial comments, I am passionately in favour of reform. I would like to see reform of both the Commons and the Lords. I think we should seize this opportunity to look at the functions of both Houses in a very careful way. The duplication is ridiculous. Is it really necessary to have a first reading, a second reading, committee stages and report stages in both Houses of Parliament? It is not. I think there is an enormous amount of duplication we could do away with. The second matter is, that we have never come to terms with devolution, the West Lothian question, Wales and assemblies also in Northern Ireland, and soon possibly in Europe. I think this is a Heaven sent opportunity to look at Parliament as a whole. The reason that I say I would go for the status quo is this. The suggestion that the government have a kind of hybrid House is patently not on; that will lead in first and second class peers, people who get elected to the upper house at the age of about 40 they will not want to, they could not, exist on the allowances we get and they would want to be paid, and there is no reason why they should not be paid, and this leads to first and second class peers, which I think is a nonsense. I would rather stay as we are, the status quo, which is working very well. If I may say to Andrew Tyrie, 4,000 amendments last year in the House of Lord, nearly all of them accepted. The great thing about the House of Lords is if you put down an amendment there, and because we do not have any constituents to justify ourselves to we can go quietly and get these motions through, we do not need to crow about it. Ministers will accept amendments if they feel they have made a concession to the House and not to an individual member who is going to crow about it in his constituency. I think the present system is working well, but it could work better. I am very much in favour of the Independent Commission, which Lord Stevenson has been telling you about. I was a convener of the cross-bench peers for five years and if any of the cross-benchers came to me and said, "Do we happen to have a line on this?" The only answer I could give them was, "Go into the chamber and listen to the argument". That is what we do. For myself, as a former speaker of the House of Commons, my response to most things was if in doubt, and if on balance support the government of the day but vote against them if you think we can make a point in improving the legislation. So, I would like to seize this opportunity to look at the whole parliamentary system, that is the reason I say the status quo at the moment.

  369. When you say status quo, I mean you have peers named after you?
  (Lord Weatherill) I do. One is dead, a `dead' Weatherill!

  370. Presumably even the status quo would mean the final elimination of those named after you?
  (Lord Weatherill) What has gone wrong, in 1999 Chairman, is that the government accepted Lord Cranborne's amendment under which the `dead' Weatherills, if I can put it that way, were replaced by an he election of the whole hereditary peerage. It is a nonsense. The system which I negotiated in, as you know, on Privy Council terms, was a system of fastest losers, you know what I mean by that?

  371. I think you had better explain what "fastest losers" are?
  (Lord Weatherill) In the case of Cross-Bench Peers, we had 28 places to fill and we elected something like 38 so that if anybody died then the 29th automatically took his place. In fact, we have had two deaths in the Cross-Bench ranks and now we have the man who was 30th on our elected list. It is called "fastest losers". That would have lasted us for about ten years. The whole idea at that time—and I was very strongly in favour of this—was that this would only be a stage towards reform of the whole parliamentary system, and I still feel very strongly about that.

  372. The short answer to my question is that even a status quo solution involves the removal of the remaining hereditaries?
  (Lord Weatherill) There is no legitimacy in the hereditary peerage. I discovered through my research in 1999 that there were only about 100 families in the peerage before 1900. Nearly all of them were Lloyd George `purchases' and, if I may put it indelicately, many of them have been purchased since! There was no legitimacy in it at all. They all knew it. Of course they were upset at having to go, that is natural. I ran into one of the "redundant" Peers the other day and said—

  373. Could you just explain that?
  (Lord Weatherill)—One of those who was not elected . They have, as you know, sort of club rights which I think is an extraordinary thing. If I had been excluded from any institution, I would never go back! Many former Members of Parliament haunt this place. I think if you are finished, you are finished, you are finished. I ran into this man the other day and I said, "Nice to see you back here" and he said, "But for you, we would all be here." That is certainly not the case.
  (Mr Tyrie) Just a point of clarification so that everybody understands. What we have in the Lords now is an electoral system to replace hereditary peers who die. An electoral college is created by the remaining hereditaries in the House of Lords so, for example, there are four hereditary Labour Peers, four Liberal Democrat Peers, there are 43 Conservative Peers, and what happens is if one of them dies then the other three have a cup of tea and decide who will become a legislator in this country. I do not think that is an acceptable way to proceed short or long term. I think it is, frankly, not serious politics to propose the retention of the status quo, which is what Lord Weatherill suggested a moment ago. As for his 4,000 amendments, most of those are put down by the Government and, on average, 75 per cent are the result of a shoddy Bill which gets put in the Commons. "Don't worry about it. Bung it up the corridor, amend it there, and we will lick it into shape in a quiescent House of Lords." It is worth bearing in mind that very little has been achieved with House of Lords reform so far. The main achievement has been the creation of an Appointments Commission which looks increasingly like a self-perpetuating oligarchy of the great and the good. As it happens, John Browne himself has said, and I quote, "The time I spend in the Lords will be very limited." At the time he said that, which was late last year, he had been there twice. The only other achievement of the stage one reform was to eject about half of the active hereditary peerage—the vast majority never turned up—and to create "tea for three" by-elections. I really do not think that the status quo is a sustainable option.
  (Mr Tyler) The exchanges that you and Gordon Prentice have had with Lord Stevenson and Lord Weatherill should, I hope, persuade the Committee that the best appointments commission is the people. The big difference between appointees and representatives is, of course, accountability. The reason why the newly elected Lord Browne does not bother to go and do any work there is that he is not accountable to anybody. As Members of this House, we are accountable to our constituencies. I think and my colleagues think and it looks as if a large consensus in the House of Commons thinks that the only people who should serve in the nation's Parliament, predominantly at least, should be those who in some way or another are accountable to the electorate, to the people at large, to the nation rather than to a smaller group, however distinguished they may be in the Appointments Commission or amongst their fellow hereditary Peers.

Mr Wright

  374. Just very quickly I want to go back to Lord Stevenson and a couple of comments that he made. I was somewhat dismayed—and the point Paul has just made regarding the Commission certainly raises questions on our view in terms of the debate in the House itself—and I was very concerned that when you talk about the lack of attendance of certain Peers, the "People's Peers" as they were termed, you said that they will speak when a subject on which they have knowledge appears. Is this perhaps one of the reasons why we do not see any electricians, bricklayers or, indeed, hairdressers being appointed because it was viewed by the Commission that there would probably never be a debate that would entitle them to participate?
  (Lord Stevenson of Coddenham) Can I re-emphasise and repeat that it is only because the Commission brought in a condition that nominees who were appointed were required to work in the Chamber that that exists at all. We were handed the old system. Let me make that absolutely clear. The second answer to the question you ask is no. We have set up a job application process with stringent, rigorous systems.

  375. I am sure we will debate that when it comes up. I am also very surprised that it was felt it was too expensive to give replies to failed applicants. One of the failings that I often hear about is that people are not notified when they fail in job applications, and to say that about 3,000 applicants I find quite appalling. Can I just turn to Andrew. Within your document Reforming the Lords you talk about the size and remuneration of a chamber of about 300 and you say "cost is the only major argument against a somewhat larger chamber". I find it amazing for the price of democracy that cost should be the main argument in opposing a larger chamber. I firmly believe that it should be much smaller than has been coming forward but I certainly would not argue on the question of cost. Can you just clarify that particular point?
  (Mr Tyrie) I think I wrote that cost is the only "major" argument against a "somewhat larger" Chamber. So people who are arguing for 400 can make a case for 400. I think a House of 600 or 700 is getting very unwieldy. The House of Commons is close to getting unwieldy. But how many of us want to be the—

  376. But you would not reduce that on the basis of cost only?
  (Mr Tyrie) The major argument against a somewhat larger chamber is cost. It is very expensive to run an elected chamber. There is strong pressure for some payment to be introduced for at least part-time employment. I do not think this is a major issue. I am not deeply entrenched on it. But the difference between a 300-person chamber and a 400-person chamber is not that great.

  377. Within your document as well you are talking already about the term of the Lords and whether it should be five, ten, 15 or (in the Liberal's case) 12 years. You say that there is a strong case for holding elections at the same time as the Commons. Are you determined that there should be fixed-term elections for the House of Commons?
  (Mr Tyrie) No. The Americans elect the Senate by thirds every two years and elect on the same day the lower House completely, the whole House coming up for election. I think that a system whereby every time there is a House of Commons' election if, say, a third of the second Chamber comes up for election, that would be a perfectly reasonable way to go forward. Before I proposed it I worked out what that would mean in terms of average duration of term and the answer is the average length of Parliamentary term in the Commons is three and a half years so we are talking about ten-year terms, which I think is a perfectly reasonable period. The advantage of holding elections of the second chamber on General Election day is, of course, that turn-out is extremely low for the European elections. The disadvantage is that you may replicate to some degree the voting pattern in the Commons. However, it you are electing by thirds you are only going to replicate it for a third at a time—there is always going to be a lag. I do not think that is an insurmountable problem either although I you recognise that there are disadvantages.

  378. You would accept a 15-year term?
  (Mr Tyrie) I am suggesting a term that is indeterminate because it is based on the length of the House of Commons' term. I would like to stress again I do not think one should get entrenched on this. These are second order issues that reasonable men and women can work out together amongst themselves.


  379. I can tell you as a distinguished former member of this Committee, that is the point of our proceedings.
  (Mr Tyrie) It is very kind of you to say that.

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