Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report

Principles of Composition


* The House should complement the work of the Commons. It should provide additional checks and balances, but it should not seek to usurp the pre-eminent authority of the House of Commons

* The House's membership should be distinctive from that of the Commons. It should be attractive to those who are not full­time career politicians, but who have experience and expertise to contribute to the work of Parliament

* The majority of members should continue to represent the political parties, but there should also be an independent, non­party element

* The House should not be dominated by any one political party. Its party membership should reflect party strengths in the country, as expressed in their share of the votes at the previous general election

* The House should be more representative in terms of gender, faith and ethnicity

* The House should be sufficiently authoritative and confident to fulfil its constitutional role (para 35).

* The House should include expertise and experience to aid its consideration of legislation and scrutiny functions[51]

81. Although there are differences of view about the precise composition of the second chamber, there is broad agreement about the principles which should determine its composition, as set out in paragraph 35 of the White Paper and reproduced above.

82. We have been encouraged by the strong support for these principles which was expressed by many of those who spoke in the debates in both Houses. Like the Government, we believe that continuation of the reform progress can best be achieved at this moment by a chamber of mixed composition, which is part elected and part appointed. We explain in the following paragraphs why a wholly appointed or wholly elected chamber would not fulfil some of the key principles.

A wholly appointed chamber

83. We recognise that many who spoke in the Lords debate still support a wholly appointed chamber. We believe that such a chamber is no longer appropriate for one fundamental reason: it would not have the confidence or the authority to fulfil its constitutional role (the last, but the most important, of the principles summarised above). Public opinion surveys, and our own survey of MPs in the House of Commons, suggest that a wholly appointed chamber is no longer credible. If it lacks credibility, then it lacks the authority to be effective when it needs to be.

A wholly elected second chamber

84. We also recognise that many in the House of Commons support a wholly elected second chamber. There are a number of sound arguments in favour of such a chamber, including its direct democratic accountability. However, modern elections almost exclusively produce party politicians; a wholly elected chamber would leave little or no room for non-aligned people who are independent of party. And there is a fear that it could jeopardise some of the other principles set out above: that no party should have an outright majority (which cannot be precluded, even under proportional voting systems); that the House should be more diverse in a whole variety of ways (because this would be left to the hazards of party selection); and that the second chamber should include expertise and experience from people whose careers have lain outside politics.

Predominantly Appointed Chamber with Elected Minority

85. The Royal Commission and the Government both favoured a predominantly appointed second chamber. In this they are bravely swimming against the tide of political and public opinion. As one of our witnesses bluntly stated, the White Paper model is 'a dead duck'. The debate in the House of Commons on 9 January, the support for the Early Day Motion, our own survey of MPs, and public opinion surveys show that having a minority elected element is no longer a credible option. The 'centre of gravity' in the House of Commons and in the country at large is clearly in favour of a predominantly or wholly elected chamber.

86. It is nevertheless worth restating why this option no longer commands confidence or credibility. In essence there has been a revulsion against party patronage. The main criticism of the White Paper voiced again and again in the parliamentary debates and in the media was that it is no longer acceptable for most of the second chamber to be party placemen, who owe their place to their party leader. Even if these appointments were not made directly by party leaders but mediated by the Appointments Commission, a largely appointed second chamber would still be 'the biggest quango in the land'. The public is no longer willing to accept patronage on that scale.

87. In defending a largely appointed second chamber, the White Paper expressed the fear that a wholly or largely elected second chamber would consider itself equally legitimate to the House of Commons, and would therefore be too active. In his oral evidence to us Lord Irvine repeated these concerns.[52] As we have explained, we believe that these concerns are misplaced, and are based upon a fundamental misconception about the role of second chambers in bicameral systems. Three quarters of the 64 bicameral legislatures around the world have largely or wholly elected second chambers, and very few suffer from such difficulties. The obvious exception is the United States, which has an unusually powerful second chamber; but it is a presidential and not a parliamentary system with a constitutional separation of powers that gives the second chamber a power of veto. The United States is a wholly inappropriate comparator, but its experience has unduly coloured the UK debate.

88. The Government refers repeatedly to the need to maintain the position of the House of Commons as the pre-eminent chamber of Parliament. But the concern is grossly overdone. The respective role of each chamber is accepted and well understood; none of the proposals for Lords reform would overturn these roles, or undermine the pre-eminence of the Commons.

89. Second chambers in parliamentary systems of government on the Westminster model are invariably subordinate to the first chamber. It is in the first chamber that the government is formed, where the prime minister and all important ministers sit, where the government is primarily held to account, and where governments are tested on votes of confidence. This is the case whether the second chamber is elected, appointed or some mixture of the two. In all these respects the Commons is and will remain the pre-eminent chamber, whatever the composition of the House of Lords.

90. The Royal Commission recommended, and the Government and Opposition parties agree, that there should be no change to this basic relationship between the two chambers. The Parliament Acts and the Commons' traditional control over finance will continue to ensure the pre-eminence of the House of Commons. Its constitutional pre-eminence is not in any doubt, nor in any danger. In summary, those who maintain that a largely appointed upper house is necessary to preserve the pre-eminence of the House of Commons are arousing false fears, and misreading the lessons from overseas.

91. Those who believe that a largely appointed second chamber is necessary to maintain the pre-eminence of the House of Commons have the evidence, from the UK and overseas, ranged firmly against them.

The half way House: half appointed, half elected

92. There is a certain symmetry about a 'half way' House, which is 50:50 appointed and elected. It would symbolise parity of esteem between the two main groups of appointed and elected members. It also falls half way between the current proposals of the main political parties, where the Government in the White Paper have proposed a ratio of 80:20 appointed to elected members, and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have responded with proposals for a 20:80 House, with 80 per cent elected and just 20 per cent (the independent non-party members ) appointed.

93. A House with 50 per cent of its membership elected has its advocates and arguments. It is a substantial advance on the Government's White Paper proposals. It would have a better basis in logic than those proposals. The elected element would not be token, but would form a substantial part of the total membership. But 50 per cent would not count as 'substantially elected,' nor does it accurately match the centre of gravity in the House of Commons as measured by our survey. The preponderance of views expressed by the respondents to the survey was for a wholly or mainly elected House: two thirds of MPs supported one of the those two options, while only 10 per cent supported a 50:50 House. Nor is it necessary for the House to be 50:50 in terms of composition for there to be parity of esteem between the elected and appointed members. Parity of esteem will come (as we argue below) from equal terms of office, equal staff and office support, equal pay and conditions of service. Finally, as we also argue below, a 'half way house' in terms of composition would still fail the test of legitimacy, and thus of effectiveness.

A predominantly elected chamber

94. The Royal Commission and the White Paper both proposed a predominantly appointed second chamber. Although we also support a mixed chamber, we believe that the balance between election and appointment needs to be tipped in the opposite direction. This is not just because we believe that this is where the centre of gravity of opinion now lies, but because we think that the legitimacy of the institution requires it. Without sufficient legitimacy, the second chamber will not be as effective as it needs to be. This consideration has also led us to conclude that the superficially attractive option of parity between election and appointment, reflecting the merits and purposes of each, is not sufficient to guarantee legitimacy and effectiveness.

95. That is why we have concluded that the new second chamber must be predominantly elected. But we also believe that there should still be a significant appointed element. The cross-benchers will only get there by appointment. Scientists, industrialists, public servants, academics and other experts who would not normally stand for election will only get there by that means. We are proposing the continuation of an appointed element not simply to accommodate those opposed to election, but because there are those who genuinely believe that the appointed members add value through their distinct expertise and experience from outside politics, which should not be lost. We might have preferred to recommend a higher proportion of elected members, but it is our judgement that at this stage of reform and in the interests of maintaining the momentum for change, a 60 per cent proportion, with 40 per cent appointed, would represent an acceptable balance. We propose later that the elected element should be higher if the Government is unable to agree with our recommendation (paragraph 133) on how the party-nominated element should be chosen.

96. To fulfill the condition that the second chamber should be predominantly elected, we therefore recommend that 60 per cent of its members should come by election. Of the remainder, half (20 per cent of the total) should be nominated by the political parties; and half (20 per cent of the total) should be independent, non-aligned members; both categories should be appointed by the Appointments Commission. We further recommend that a draft Bill should contain options for the precise proportion of elected and appointed members.

97. We recognise that there is no magic about the figure of 60 per cent, compared with (say) 51 per cent or 70 per cent. It simply reflects our sense that the House of Commons now wants, rightly, a predominantly elected second chamber. It is also our judgement about where the centre of gravity lies, where the arguments are best balanced, and where a constructive compromise can best be established. It would deliver a chamber with the confidence and the authority (to repeat again the final and most important principle of composition from the White Paper) to fulfil its constitutional role. It would not deny the parties the right to nominate members as well, because we have left the parties with 20 per cent who would be party nominees. In total, by election and by nomination, the parties would have 80 per cent of the members of the House. But the influence of the citizen over the process would be much greater.

98. We would add one further principle of composition: that however individual members enter the House, they should enjoy equal status and parity of esteem, whether they are elected, nominated by the parties or appointed to sit on the cross benches.

99. In furtherance of this principle, we recommend that all members of the second chamber should serve for similar periods and for long terms; should enjoy equal facilities; and should receive the same pay and conditions of service.

51   Cmd 5291 Back

52   HC 494-iii, Q413 Back

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Prepared 14 February 2002