Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 440 - 459)



  440. Can I come in there?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) And every man's opinion and woman's opinion is as good as any other. This is actually a one-off.

  Chairman: Thank you. Let us just hear the question.

Mr Prentice

  441. This is walking through treacle. Given that we have had two excellent debates and there has been a huge amount of press comment on this, eminent academics, anyone with a view has expressed a view about the shape of the second chamber, and we have had very eminent people come before us on this Committee, and you will have read their evidence—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I have not actually. I have read some. I will in the fullness of time read it all.

  442. I was going to ask you if having read all the evidence—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Well, I have not read it.

  443. What is the point? This is very hypothetical now. I was going to ask you, having listened to the national debate, whether your views had changed materially at all as a result of what people have said?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I have certainly paid very, very close attention to what everyone has said. I think that there is the possibility of some flexibility in relation to the percentage elected but I do not think that it is very great precisely for the reasons that I have given and is not worthy of attention.

  444. Okay.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) A lot of people have spoken out in relation to elected, and of course one has to respect that, and I do, but it is the job of Government not to govern in relation to issues by opinion poll but to come to the view that it thinks is correct.

  445. On that point, you told us earlier that the Government's collective fingerprints are all over this proposal, it is not the Lord Chancellor's proposal.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Well, everybody knows that. Everybody knows that White Papers are settled by Cabinet Committee.

  446. My question was how is it that all those people, Charles Clarke, John Prescott, so seriously misjudged the mood and the feelings, the opinions, of their colleagues in Parliament and outside?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am not going to say anything more intriguing than I think that you should call John Prescott along and ask him because I think he would give you quite a trenchant answer to that. I am not going to speak for him.

  447. You did earlier, you mentioned his name, that is why I brought it up. If you had not mentioned his name I would not have asked you the question. Let me, if I may, just return to this question about the size of the second chamber. You told us earlier that we must not prejudice the position of life Peers because when they were ennobled they were told they would be Peers until they dropped and Andrew Tyrie, when he was here an hour or so ago, said that the proposal to buy off Peers was cash for no questions. In your contribution to the debate on 9 January you said that the Government, "we are canvassing opinions on a voluntary retirement scheme . . ."
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Absolutely.

  448. ". . . because attrition of itself will not do the job". You told us that 18 Peers on average die every year.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I actually think that attrition—

  449. My question, because I am quoting back to you your words, "we are canvassing opinions on a voluntary retirement scheme", is I am intrigued as to what kind of response you got from Peers about a voluntary retirement scheme?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) So the question is what response have we had to proposals for a voluntary retirement scheme?

  450. And give us the details of the voluntary retirement scheme.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) First of all, there are no details to give. Certainly when the analysis of all the responses to the consultation come in we will see if anyone has focused on that. Basically there is a strong argument, I think, in favour of having some kind of pension for Peers who retire which will be taxable. It might reflect the number of years' service in the House of Parliament. Consideration could also be given to a lump sum resettlement figure. None of these ideas seem to me to be objectionable. It could be accompanied by a condition that it would have to be applied for within a period of years, a reasonable period of years, otherwise it could not be obtained, so as to be an obvious incentive for the older Peers to take it up. I think that these are all respectable ideas in any event. None of this flexibility bears on the central question that everybody has to consider what proportion of elected can safely be allowed without prejudicing the pre-eminence of the House of Commons.

  451. I understand that. I have only got a couple of questions left. Would this army of Peers that take voluntary retirement have club rights in the House of Lords? Lord Weatherill spoke to us earlier about Peers who had left the House of Lords, they were no longer voting members but they had club rights.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) No, there are no club rights.

  452. There are no club rights?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) There are no club rights for the hereditaries who have gone.

  Chairman: There is talk of having them.

Mr Prentice

  453. I misunderstood.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think probably what Bernard Weatherill was saying is that club rights are an incentive to people who are minded to go to go. The grant of club rights is a matter for the House not really for the legislature, that is the historic view. The outgoing hereditaries were not given club rights. You talk about an army of Peers, that is your expression not mine, I am not persuaded that there would be an army of Peers who would take up the offer. I think it is a justifiable scheme and certainly there would be some takers which would make greater flexibility in numbers.

  454. Okay. My final question is this, if I may. It was the Government's objective way back in the early days, to make the second chamber more representative of British society, something like that, I am quoting from memory. I know the changes, the hereditaries have gone.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Well, 92 remain, as you know.

  455. Yes, only 92. Do you think that the second chamber is representative of British society and if it is not, what kind of changes would you like to see made to ensure that it could be made more representative?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Nothing is a perfect microcosm of society as a whole. The House of Lords is, however, quite significantly representative because of the large number for example of former MPs who are there, who are in themselves representative of society, members of local government and then various, if you like, functional "constituencies" in the country are represented, not as such but in substance, the professions, as I said, the arts, the voluntary sector. There is a huge range of interest groups, shall we call them, which are represented by persons who come from these interest groups in the House of Lords. That is what adds to the informed quality of debate, particularly in specialist subjects, and informed appraisal of legislation by the House in committee when the people who tend to take part actively in the committee are doing so from a position of expertise derived, usually, from the occupations that they formally had. I am not saying it is a microcosm of a community, I think it is a microcosm of a very, very broad range of interests in the community.

  Chairman: I would be grateful for some fairly crisp questioning and perhaps even, Lord Chancellor, for some fairly crisp answers. Brian White.

Brian White

  456. First of all an apology for coming in late but I was on the Standing Committee of the Ofcom Bill. You mentioned 600 Peers as the objective, is that because you believe in part-time representation in the House of Lords or could you not have a smaller House with full-time representation?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) The short answer to that question is you could have smaller if it was full-time. It is predicated upon part-time, therefore you need more to have a complement at any time. The virtue of it being part-time is that it draws from the range of experiences that I have described.

  457. Why did you not choose to reduce the number of life Peers, and I am not normally in favour of compulsory redundancies, but the Weatherill amendment reduced hereditary Peers, why not reduce the life Peers on the same basis that they vote who remains?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Again, nobody raised that as a possibility. I may be historically wrong about that because maybe some Conservatives who were resisting the removal of the hereditaries may have raised it, I cannot precisely remember. I think the point is that the Labour Government came to power on a manifesto which assumed that whatever is legitimate, hereditary Peers were illegitimate and we have a clear mandate to remove hereditary Peers. Life Peers were not illegitimate, they were appointed under the Life Peerages Act, and the terms under which they were appointed gave them a right to a seat and a voice in Parliament for life. Of course Parliament can change that but it did not seem to us at the time to be fair.

  458. Do you accept that the debate over the House of Lords is actually tied up with the whole debate on the disillusionment that the general public has with politics and the turn out at the last General Election of 59 per cent and the cynicism that is out there? Do you accept that the proposals as put forward have contributed to that cynicism and to the real anger amongst particularly Labour party members who feel let down by the Government proposals which they do not see as radical enough?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Well, that, obviously, if it is widely felt in the constituency parties, it really gives cause for concern. I do say that very often the House of Lords gets a very good billing when broad opinion is consulted. It is perceived as less political than the House of Commons, and probably rightly, it is not a political hot house. I think that there is disillusionment with the parliamentary process generally but not least, I must say, with the House of Commons. I think that the most interesting observation that appeared to me, at any rate, was that the people want the House of Lords to be less party political. I think there is a little bit of confusion around in thinking that if you make it wholly elected it will become less party political and more likeable to the general public.

  459. What do you say to the charge that this proposal is brought forward in order to stop any reform because you have generated so many different views about what the reform is that you keep the status quo as it is now and that is the whole purpose of the White Paper?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I can tell you with my hand on my heart that it was not the purpose of the White Paper and the purpose of the White Paper and the purpose of all of us who contributed to that White Paper was that it would be a basis around which consensus could be achieved. Any conspiracy theory that it was intended to achieve no further progress is not true. Now, it is the fact that the status quo is an option. The status quo always is an option. The status quo was the option which prevailed for the last hundred years but we are, of course, committed to removing the 92 hereditaries.

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