Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report

Our evidence

33. Some of the written and oral evidence available to the Committee re-iterated positions that were already well known, but some of those who made submissions to us had recently changed their position somewhat. The Rt Hon Lord Howe of Aberavon, for example, had been impressed by the performance of the House since the departure of most hereditary peers, and no longer saw a powerful case for an elected element.[24]

34. Lord Lipsey was another who had recently changed his view as a result of experience. He told us that he saw merit in most of the White Paper's proposals, but, having observed their reception in the country and in both Houses, he nevertheless described the White Paper to us as a "dead duck ... on its back in Parliament with its legs in the air".[25] He continued:

"If the Government ploughs ahead with proposals based on its current proposals ¼ they are unlikely to get through Parliament, at least without doing terrible collateral damage to the rest of its legislative proposals".[26]

35. There was a broad consensus that the roles, powers and functions of the two chambers were not the main current focus for discussion, and that it was the question of composition and related issues that constituted the main obstacle on the road to reform. We agree with this view. Argument about composition and the pre-eminence of one House over another can distract attention from Parliament's key task of holding the Government to account. The pre-eminence of the House of Commons is not in doubt.

36. This underlines one very important principle. Reform is not a zero-sum game in which advances for one chamber are inevitably threats to the other. That is where the White Paper is fundamentally misconceived, as was the Royal Commission, in its oft-repeated determination to ensure the pre-eminence of the House of Commons. No-one is casting any doubt on that pre-eminence. We believe that the real task is rather to increase the effectiveness of both chambers in holding the Government to account for its actions and policies. The focus should be on the capacities of the institution as a whole.

37. It is clear that there is general agreement that the White Paper as it stands commands insufficient support, but it remains to establish what does. The Government is especially sceptical about the prospect of establishing a shared view as an alternative to that proposed in the White Paper. The Lord Chancellor, The Rt Hon Lord Irvine of Lairg, told the Committee: "What is really awfully significant in this area is that there are as many opinions as people".[27]

38. Our inquiry has persuaded us that there is much greater agreement on the fundamentals than the Prime Minister or the Lord Chancellor allow. The role, powers and functions of the second chamber are not in dispute. It is only on the details of composition that real disagreement remains. However even on this there is evidence of shared views.

39. The evidence of public opinion suggests that there is also a broad measure of agreement in the country at large. In December 2001, ICM, on behalf of the Democratic Audit, asked a sample of the public for their views on the composition of the future second chamber. 54 per cent supported either a wholly or a majority elected chamber, with 14 per cent supporting the Government's option of a majority appointed House and 9 per cent backing a wholly appointed chamber.

ICM/Democratic Audit Poll December 2001

In your view, which of these proposals, if any, is the best course for a future second chamber?


A mixed House, with a majority of elected members


A wholly elected House


A mixed House, with a majority of appointed members


A wholly appointed House


Don't knows


ICM interviewed a random sample of 1,000 adults aged 18+ by telephone between 14-16 December 2001.[28]

24   HC 494-II, LR 24 Back

25   HC 494-ii, Q123 Back

26   Ibid, Q123 Back

27   HC 494-iii, Q390 Back

28   HC 494-II, LR 52 Back

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