Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report

Agreement on Fundamentals

49. For reform to move forward, there needs to be general agreement on some fundamental questions. In this section we identify issues on which there is such agreement. Briefly they are:

  • There should be no major change in the powers of either House.

  • There should be a larger proportion of elected members in the second chamber than that proposed by the Government.

  • The second chamber should be substantially smaller than the current House of Lords.

  • Approximately 20 per cent of the members of the second chamber should be independent of any party.

  • The members of the second chamber should serve for longer terms than members of the House of Commons.

The need for a second chamber

50. Even many of those who support abolition of the second chamber recognise that it will not happen in the immediate future. The arguments for a unicameral legislature include clear democratic accountability, simplicity in procedure and lower cost; but they all rely on the development of a much more effective first chamber. So long as we have an imperfect first chamber, we will continue to need a second chamber. There must be doubts about the capacity of the House of Commons, unreformed, to carry out the necessary scrutiny of government. Growing amounts of legislation, some of it technically flawed, now need to be monitored, challenged and where necessary revised by a chamber with the time, inclination and expertise to do it. Therefore we acknowledge the force of the Prime Minister's view that the country requires a 'credible and effective' second chamber.

A Threat to Commons Pre-eminence?

51. The Government, and some members of the Lords, have laid particular stress on the threat which would allegedly be posed to the pre-eminence of the Commons by a more legitimate reformed second chamber. We are satisfied that the Parliament Acts provide sufficient safeguards against that. The differences in powers between the Houses are already very clear. These have only to be identified for any argument on this point to be removed. The Commons can pass legislation without the consent of the Lords, after delay of about one year. But the Lords cannot pass legislation without gaining the consent of the Commons. The Commons only has to wait one month before passing a money bill without the consent of the Lords. Governments are formed, tested and held to account in the Commons. They have to retain the confidence of the Commons if they are to retain office. Only the Commons can make or break governments. We therefore do not believe that a reformed, more representative second chamber will pose a threat to that status. Moreover, our proposals are intended further to strengthen the distinctiveness of the second chamber, and so increase the effectiveness of Parliament as a whole.

52. The vast majority of MPs themselves appear to agree with this assessment of the robustness of the Commons' pre-eminence. Paul Tyler MP dismissed the suggestion that "somehow or other giving the second chamber an alternative legitimacy undermines the legitimacy of the House [of Commons]" with a brisk "We do not buy that"[29]. George Stevenson MP said in written evidence:

"I do not accept the views held by some that such an elected second chamber would be in competition with the House of Commons. The powers, duties and responsibilities of an elected second chamber can be properly circumscribed and laid out under the necessary regulations, as is the case in many other bi-cameral systems in other parts of the world".[30]

53. Andrew Tyrie MP considered that it would be very easy to avoid a second chamber that duplicated the Commons, and that the Parliament Acts were a sufficient guarantee against intolerable legislative "gridlock"[31] between the two chambers. Although The Rt Hon Eric Forth MP, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, told us that he would "contemplate gridlock with equanimity",[32] we do not believe he will have to contemplate it at all.

Building on the strengths of the present Chamber

54. Also generally agreed is the fact that the current House of Lords has considerable virtues which should be preserved. Its debating style, for example, tends to be less partisan than in the Commons, and whipping is less obtrusive.

55. Lord Jenkin of Roding (Conservative), with long experience of both chambers, told us that:

"Whereas the culture of the House of Commons is dominated by the party battle and is therefore confrontational and often noisy, the culture of the House of Lords seems much more driven by the wish to see the widest possible consensus and to seek ways of achieving that".[33]

Culture is important, and is easier to destroy than to create.

56. We believe that reform should build on the existing strengths of the House of Lords. As Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative) said of the House in his oral evidence to us:

"it does add some value to the political process because it fulfils functions that are qualitatively distinctive to those of the first chamber and it performs them tolerably well".[34]

57. During the debate in the Lords, Viscount Goschen (Conservative) referred to the House's:

"increasingly vital role in scrutinising legislation and in asking another place to think again about provisions with which they disagree or about which they have not thought in the first instance".[35]

58. Other commentators have pointed to the relatively generous amounts of time that the Lords can devote to consideration of Bills. This is seen to be in contrast to the rushed timetabling which is often a feature of the Commons, and it can help to give Lords scrutiny a quality lacking in the other chamber.

59. The quality of Lords' Committees, including those on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform, Science and Technology, and the European Union, is widely acknowledged. Unlike most Commons Committees, they have a cross-cutting remit which gives them a distinctive role. They also have a considerable expertise. In this area at least, the complementary roles of the Commons and the Lords are well understood.

60. The Lords, then, is regarded as very effective in carrying out a range of scrutiny and legislative work. But there is ample evidence that, for all its expertise and experience, it does not have enough confidence in its own legitimacy. From time to time the House of Lords amends legislation very effectively, in ways that are inconvenient to the Government but which can result in better law. The last occasion was during the recent passage of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. But these high profile cases are rare. We judge that there are many more occasions when the Upper House feels itself unable to act as it would if it felt more secure in its legitimacy. It is inherently unsatisfactory for the second chamber to have a wide range of powers that are unused in this way, and reform should be such that it helps to give it the confidence to use them whenever appropriate.

61. But the Lords is not an apolitical place where technocrats and philosopher kings debate issues in an entirely disinterested atmosphere. Despite the high technical quality of some of its work, especially on scientific topics, the second chamber is not primarily an advisory committee or quango, but a politically-active chamber of the legislature. Therein lies its chief value. The expertise of the second chamber is of no value unless it is used effectively in the actual business of holding government to account and improving the quality of legislation.

62. Nor are all peers wholly convinced of the consistent quality of the work of the present second chamber. Lord Harrison (Labour) called for "root and branch reform" of the House's committee system, which, he said, suffered from the "grace notes and curlicues" of custom and practice.[36] Select Committee reports were presented in a "tired and unserviceable way" and methods of taking evidence were "antiquated, inefficient and, at

times, downright lacking in civility".[37] It is only fair to add, however, that the House of Lords is rightly taking steps to modernise its methods, and has established a Leader's Group to address the issues.

63. As we noted above, there is widespread evidence of public disillusionment with our political system. In a recent report this Committee referred to a 'civic crisis'.[38] Because the Lords is one of our senior political institutions, reform should include among its aims a strengthening of the connection between Parliament and the people. This was well put by Sir Brian Barder, who said in a submission to us that our democracy is suffering a "double crisis", with "the establishment of virtually untrammelled control of the House of Commons by the executive" and "the collapse of public confidence in Britain's governmental and parliamentary systems" as demonstrated by the turnout in the 2001 general election. The measures adopted to reform the second chamber should, he said:

"1. ensure that the dominance over parliament of the executive, including the political party machines, is reduced and monitored, not increased and 2. make the second chamber more obviously relevant to ordinary people's lives, appropriate to the 21st century, unarguably democratic, free from the control of government and party bosses and just plain interesting".[39]

64. The need to make the second chamber interesting is not a trivial point. Parliament must reconnect with people. Below we explore ways in which reform could do this.

65. But there is also another sense in which reform should build on the strengths of the present House of Lords. We have noted the number of peers who have expressed fears that knowledgeable and expert voices could be lost if reform were botched. We are confident that our proposals will help to meet these understandable concerns.

66. In similar vein, the contribution made by independent cross bench peers is rightly seen as lending a distinctive quality to debate in the Lords. The main parties recognise the importance of persuading the cross benchers of the virtues of their case, and this is a feature of the Lords that needs to be safeguarded in any reform.

67. We note with interest a submission from a group of cross bench peers including The Rt Hon Lord Chalfont and The Rt Hon Lord Weatherill.[40] Their proposals seek to ensure that, in the transition to a new second chamber, there is no diminution of the contribution of these independent members. Among the proposals is one to ensure that no representative of a political party is counted in any quota of independent members during the period of transition. While not all the proposals are relevant to our specific recommendations, we see value in anything which helps to preserve the ethos of independence in the second chamber, and commend the submission as an important contribution to the reform debate.

The Legitimacy Issue

68. The question of legitimacy is a running thread in discussion of second chamber reform. It is dogged by confusions and misunderstandings. The Lord Chancellor told us that "the nominated would be as legitimate as the elected",[41] yet this is conspicuously not so in relation to Ministers (which is why it is no longer acceptable for senior ministers, including the Prime Minister, to come from the Lords). If it was so, and if there could therefore be no competing legitimacies, then logically the Lord Chancellor's opposition to an elected second chamber would fall. It is evident that a second chamber that is more legitimate will perform its role and exercise its powers with more confidence. That is to be welcomed, if we are serious about having an effective second chamber. This does not disturb the constitutional balance between the two bodies, as the subordinate power of the second chamber is firmly established. We distinguish between the overall legitimacy of the institution, and the legitimacy of its individual members. We believe that the former does require a sufficiently firm basis in election, or the institution will never be taken seriously enough; but that once this is established there need be no difference in legitimacy between members drawn from different sources.

29   HC 494-iii, Q324 Back

30   HC 494-II, LR 17 Back

31   Ibid, Q326 Back

32   HC 494-iii, Q282 Back

33   HC 494-II, LR 15 Back

34   HC 494-ii, Q124 Back

35   Lords Hansard 9 January 2002 Col 646 Back

36   Lords Hansard 9 January 2002 Col 655 Back

37   Lords Hansard 9 January 2002 Col 656 Back

38   'Public Participation' First Report 2001/02 HC 334 Back

39   HC 494-II, LR 44 Back

40   Ibid, LR 33 Back

41   HC 494-iii, Q412 Back

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