Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 460 - 479)



  460. You can avoid all this argument, of course, if you abolish the House of Lords full stop and have a unicameral system.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I did say that in my opening remarks but I think that you were busy elsewhere.

Kevin Brennan

  461. It strikes me, Lord Irvine, that the time when you became most animated and excited in giving your evidence was when people said there was the possibility of having nobody elected at all to the second chamber. You said "There is a heck a lot of people . . ." and then you went on to name some of the usual suspects from the House of Lords "... who would favour that". Would that personally be your position that you would rather not have any elected element to the second chamber?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) First of all, I have not been conscious of any sense—and this is not in the least offensive to the Committee I hope—of animation or excitement throughout the whole of our discussions. I have been extremely interested and I have enjoyed them all. Whereas there are very powerful arguments for no elected at all and whereas I respect the opinions of those who regard hybridity as very difficult because it creates two different classes of Members of the one House—

  462. But you sincerely do believe—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Let me finish.

  463. I do not want to prolong this. You do believe that there is a place for a small proportion that is elected?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes.

  464. Have you had any sense at all of surrealism about this because I have in all of these discussions? We have had a number of ornithological references throughout the afternoon and throughout the evidence. We have heard of Robin, we have heard of turkeys voting for Christmas with Cranborne sauce, we have heard of dead ducks and, indeed, we heard of a dead parrot earlier on. Have you had any sense that you are the man trying to sell the dead parrot as far as your proposal is concerned when it is a dead proposal and there is no support for it out there at all? You said earlier on that it has been road tested, you said that you seriously believe it is still in contention. Do you honestly believe that anything resembling the proposals that are in the White Paper could command anywhere close to a majority in the House of Commons?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes.

  465. And on what evidence do you support that contention?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) First of all, I am not honestly impressed by epithets like Cranborne sauce or anything else. They add to the gaiety of nations but they do not progress the argument. I do think when people take time to reflect and consider the very central point that I have tried to make that the superiority of the House of Commons is at the heart of the stability of our Government and that it will be prejudiced by an excessive elected element, I think that as people really think very hard about that central proposition minds are likely to change. If I am wrong, I am wrong, it is not the end of the world. As you and I know there are bread and butter issues that affect the British people of inordinately more importance than House of Lords reform. One of the things that has actually amazed me is how animated and excited Members of the House of Commons have become about this issue when there are so many other issues to be really much more animated and excited about. I do not really think actually that Constituency Labour Parties do so vastly care about this issue, but you represent a constituency, I do not, you have got a better feel for that than I about it. If this is a bird that does not fly in this plumage or somewhat different plumage it is not the end of the world, we get on with life.

  Kevin Brennan: I suspect it is nailed to the perch.

Mr Wright

  466. Can I just apologise, I, like Brian White, was on a Standing Committee as well. Very quickly, in regard to what you have just said about you oppose an excessive elected element in the second chamber, that seems to be out of kilter with what we hear the Prime Minister is actually moving towards now, that he does not accept that the White Paper as it is is going to go through, probably more like 40 to 60 per cent.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I do not know where you got that from.

  467. That is the view that seems to be coming forward, whether it is true or not remains to be seen. Would you find it extremely difficult to support anything over the 20 per cent elected representatives within the House of Lords or could you accept that, if that was the overriding view coming forward from the House of Commons, if you could see that was the only way forward?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Of course you pay the highest importance, obviously, to what would get through the Commons and you give the highest weight to the collective view of the PLP if you can ascertain it. At the end of the day the Government has to decide what it thinks is proper to bring forward. If the predominant view of my colleagues was for a larger percentage than 20, a significantly larger percentage than 20, I would not stand in its way. The only consensus within Government at that moment was to put forward the 20 per cent proposition which the White Paper put forward. As I said at the outset when you were not here, we do read, we do listen, we do know what is going on in the PLP. We learn from the debates, we learn from the consultation exercise and we will have to think again, and I have said that we will.

  468. Earlier on we had Lord Stevenson here and he answered a host of questions regarding the Commission, the problems that we perceive with the selection of what we term now as the People's Peers, or as was at that time.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) In fairness to Lord Stevenson, I do not think that was an expression that he chose.

  469. I am not saying it was by any stretch of the imagination, it is an expression that seems to have been adopted certainly by the ordinary public outside which obviously was concerned. Do you not think that has done some damage to the perception that the Commission actually select ordinary people to represent them?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Because the idea got round that the independent Peers were People's Peers, then obviously when it turned out that these 15 Peers were all eminent in one way or another in their public lives that to an extent got this interim Appointments Commission a bad name. I think it was a bit hard on them actually because typically in relation to independent Peers what you are looking for are people who bring an independent mind and great experience of some area of life into the House of Lords. If actually you are looking for People's Peers in the sense of people who are closer to the coalface of life rather than very eminent people like the Stevenson Peers, then the most natural way for them to go forward is via the political parties. I do not want to get into the question of whether they should be elected or whether they should be nominated but either way you get People's Peers by that route. The independent Peers are typically thought of as people who will bring to the legislative process great experience of other walks of life. This is actually what makes the House of Lords different from the House of Commons. Although Members of the House of Commons bring great experience also to public life, it is from a different source usually and these people—let us take some of them: Chan on medical teaching and research, Condon, the police, Greenfield, medical teaching and the chap who was the Chief Executive of Centrepoint, Adebowale—are all people who bring particular experience to the House of Lords and very relevant experience to all the legislation that goes through, but of course you cannot describe them as People's Peers. My point is that you should look for People's Peers from the political route.


  470. Thank you for that. We are rounding off now. I am sorry for detaining you for so long.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) It has been an hour and a half but I have enjoyed every minute of it.

  471. Do not get too excited. We are almost there. If I could just ask a couple of things very quickly and if you could give very quick answers, even though they are very large questions. There are those who would put a fundamental objection to your whole approach, and your approach is one that says "we cannot do anything that would imperil the balance between these two Houses and any substantial elected element would do that". The evidence that we have heard from many sources says that is a completely misconceived position because if you have a second chamber with quite different powers, elected quite differently, different terms, staggered elections, so it is a completely different institution, there is no question of it being a threat, it is just entirely different, it will become complementary, so why is that not the answer to your central worry?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Because I think you are completely wrong. I think a substantial elected House of Lords elected by a different method of election, PR, which would be claimed to be superior would inevitably upset the conventions which caused the House of Commons to be accepted as superior, conventions which were premised upon the House of Lords being unelected which in practice would prove to be swept away over time if we had a substantially elected House of Lords. It is a question of judgment. It is not actually a question of evidence or how many people say it. What you have to do in this area is not number opinions, you have to respect the number of people who have an opinion in a similar sense but you actually weigh them, you do not number them, it is a question of judgment. I may be right, I may be wrong.

  472. I am following you. Secondly, in your contribution to the Lords, you go through the figures in the Lords at the moment and you come up with 120 elected. You say "What these figures show is there is no scope at present for more than 120 elected" that is to say people might want it but the figures just do not allow it to happen.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes. I was really saying therefore in the real world there is an argument for tomorrow.

  473. Yes.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) We cannot bind our successors. Why not get rid of the 92 hereditaries, let us go ahead with the 120 elected and then let the future take care of itself at the same time as the Grim Reaper plus the pension will be laying scope for a different view being taken by our successors. What is wrong with that?

  474. No, no, the Grim Reaper has featured largely in our discussions today and I do not want to revisit him or her.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Well, why not end on a morbid note?

  475. Because I am not quite ended and I am chairing this. What I want to know from you is whether this is a technical problem you have got or whether it is a problem of principle?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) The latter.

  476. So even if we could come up —
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Look, I have made it clear, have I not? There is a technical problem today because the scope for more than 120 is not there. There is also a question of principle as to what percentage level of elected you can safely go to without reaching what is my datum line, I do not know if it is your datum line, I do not ask you questions, you ask me which is fair enough.

  477. That is the arrangement.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) But without prejudice to the datum line which for me is the pre-eminence of the House of Commons is essential to the stability of British Government. That is a question of judgment, it seems to me, and a question of principle but there is a technical problem as well, the numbers, which is a problem for the present.

  478. We are very grateful for hearing that judgment in the way you have described it to us. I am sorry that we have not been able to provide you with animation and excitement.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) You have indeed but I just conceal it.

  479. I think we would certainly put on record our animation and excitement at the proceedings. We must get our thrills in different ways.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think you should have a further inquiry into that.

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