Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report


20. Speaking in the House of Commons on 10 January, the Leader of the House, the Rt Hon Robin Cook MP, outlined the Government's proposals, saying that "the limited functions of a second chamber do not require it to mirror the democratic mandate of the House of Commons".[13]

21. Mr Cook then referred to the defeat of the 1968 House of Lords reform proposals and urged the House not to let history repeat itself. He invited those who supported reform to seek not consensus but something that might be more pragmatic and more achievable— the 'centre of gravity': "On the broad principle, of course we will listen to what is said during the consultation period. In the period of reflection that will follow, we will see what is the centre of gravity in order to move forward with reform".[14]

22. When the House of Commons debated the White Paper on 10 January, it was widely criticised from all sides. The limited proportion of elected members which it proposed attracted much criticism. There was also a general demand for extended terms for second chamber members and an underlying recognition that the chamber's scrutiny role should be complementary to and not competitive with that of the Commons.

23. Peter Bradley MP was unequivocal, saying that the White Paper "does not provide the basis for reform". He set out some "key principles" for the second chamber: "It must be distinctive in its role and function ... It must not replicate, imitate or duplicate the work of the House of Commons. It must be complementary, not competitive, so it must inevitably have subsidiary powers. It must be legitimate, and much of that legitimacy will come through election, whether whole or substantial".[15]

24. The Rt Hon Sir George Young MP said that "the real contest today is not between the Lords and the Commons but between Parliament and the Executive. In that battle, the two Houses are not rivals but partners". He characterised the White Paper proposals as something that would "undermine the legitimacy, independence and effectiveness of the second chamber".[16] He argued for a second chamber that would be one-third non-political and appointed, two-thirds political and elected.

25. There was a little support for a wholly nominated House. Sir Patrick Cormack MP saw the possibility of gridlock between the chambers if the second chamber were elected. He argued that a wholly nominated chamber would be legitimate: "If we look around the world, we see that many of the second chambers are not directly elected. Nobody questions that France is a democracy, but it has an indirectly elected second chamber ¼ In Canada—where the second chamber has the power of total veto—there is a wholly appointed second chamber¼ In my view, we would be far better building upon what we have".[17]

26. Paul Tyler MP said that no-one questioned the supremacy of the Commons over the House of Lords: "What we are saying is that the supremacy of Parliament over the Executive is critical in a parliamentary democracy". He argued for a strengthening of the capacity of the second chamber to hold the Government to account, including more pre-legislative scrutiny through Joint Committees with the Commons and a Select Committee on treaties. Mr Tyler advocated a smaller second chamber with "a democratically elected mandate—full stop".[18]

27. In their debate on 9 and 10 January, Members of the House of Lords were equally unenthusiastic in their comments on the White Paper, although often from a different perspective than its Commons' critics. Very few peers judged that it offered a convincing way forward. Many stressed the importance in any reform of preserving the independence of mind and wide range of expertise contained in the House. Others argued that it was inappropriate that a substantial proportion of the second chamber should be elected. Those who opposed election considered that it could introduce the disadvantages of party politics, including determined whipping, compliance with the party line and the search for office. They also feared that an elected second chamber would compete with the House of Commons.

28. Lord Dahrendorf (Liberal Democrat) argued against elections for the second chamber: "I cannot insist too strongly that elections are neither the only source of legitimacy nor do they necessarily create legitimacy ¼ judges are not elected, yet, as a body, they may be more legitimate than some parliamentary institutions. On the other hand, a limited number of representatives selected from party lists and elected by a miserable turn-out to serve for long periods in a badly-understood parliament cannot be described as legitimate".[19]

29. A very different assessment of an elected second chamber was made by the Earl of Listowel (Cross Bench) who referred to the fully directly elected Australian Senate, which, he accepted, was "accorded general popular respect¼ In Australia, the upper House is respected for its ability thoroughly to revise legislation because it will occasionally intervene in the legislative process. It has blocked the government's legislative programme at times".[20] However, Lord Listowel did not conclude from this that the establishment of such a chamber would be prudent in the UK. He feared a repetition of the problems caused in the mid-1970s when the Australian Senate refused the government supply and precipitated a constitutional crisis.

30. The Rt Hon Lord Richard (Labour), a former Leader of the House of Lords, was a strong advocate of a substantial element of election for the second chamber:

"In this country legitimacy comes primarily from the exercise of democratic choice¼ I have never understood the argument that appointments can produce a more generally representative House. The public are used to elections; they are part of the fabric of the constitution. Sometimes they may choose not to vote. But it is a democratic right not to turn up and put a cross on the ballot paper just as much as it is a right to do so. If that is the position as regards the rest of the constitution, why not this Chamber?".[21]

Lord Richard restated his long-held view that two-thirds of the second chamber should be elected.

31. Lord Northbrook (Conservative) was doubtful about election:

"Adding a number of elected Members may have a symbolic resonance, but would it necessarily produce a more effective second chamber? Would it make up for the skills lost through the exclusion of the hereditary Peers?".[22]

32. The positions of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have also been set out in recent weeks, both supporting a predominantly elected second chamber.[23]

13   Official Report, 10 January 2002, Col 710 Back

14   Ibid Col 703  Back

15   Official Report, 10 January 2002, Col 767 Back

16   Ibid, Col 727/8 Back

17   Ibid, Col 739 Back

18   Ibid, Col 723 Back

19   Lords Hansard, 9 January 2002, Col 591/2 Back

20   Lords Hansard, 9 January 2002, Col 671 Back

21   Ibid, Col 603 Back

22   Ibid, Col 659 Back

23   'Delivering a Stronger Parliament: Reforming the Lords' Conservative Party 5 February 2002

'House of Lords Reform' Liberal Democrats 22 January 2002 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 14 February 2002