Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report

The Elected Members

100. Under our proposals the elected members would comprise a majority of the second chamber. How they are elected will be critical in determining the quality of the new chamber. If its membership is to be clearly distinctive from the House of Commons, it is essential that every feature of the electoral arrangements should be as different from those for the House of Commons as possible. The electoral system, size of constituencies, term of office, and the electoral cycle should all be designed to find independent minded members, not too slavishly tied to party or political ambition, and who do not challenge the constituency role of Members of Parliament.

101. The parliamentary debates and the evidence submitted to us showed that there is broad consensus around these aims. The only remaining differences are around the means. We therefore take each element of the electoral arrangements in turn.

Elected members to represent the nations and regions

102. There is general agreement that the elected element should be elected to represent the nations and regions. That was the strong recommendation of the Royal Commission, endorsed by the Government in the White Paper. We therefore do not explore alternative sets of proposals, such as indirect elections from 'functional constituencies' representing the professions etc; but we pause briefly to consider whether indirect elections might prove a better means of representing the nations and regions and of building links with the devolved institutions.

Indirectly elected members from the devolved institutions

103. In his speech in the House of Commons debate, and in his evidence to us, Mr Cook floated the possibility of having an indirectly elected element, not as an alternative to direct election but as a complement to it:

"As someone who comes from a part of the UK where there is a vigorous and well supported devolved body I can see the attractions of the indirect election route. It also ... comes closer to the model that exists through most of Europe. Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands all have second chambers which are predominantly reflections of indirect election by regional and local bodies".[53]

104. The Leader of the House went on to say that if this possibility is to come into the frame then we need to hear from the devolved institutions that they want to be represented in this way. No evidence has been received from the devolved bodies, but it may be that no one has thought to ask them. At this stage it is difficult to pursue further, because it is not a feasible proposition until there are elected assemblies in England which could form electoral colleges alongside the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it is something to revisit in the future, when the devolution settlement is more complete; and we recommend that the Constitution Committee in the House of Lords should come back to this issue.

Size of constituencies

105. We agree with the Government that elections to the second chamber should be based upon regions. If these members are to represent the 'nations and regions', it makes sense for their constituencies to match the nations and regions of the UK. It also helps to distinguish them further from MPs: the larger the area, the less likely they are to do constituency work.

106. We agree with the Government that elections for the second chamber should be based on the same regional constituencies as those used in the European Parliament elections. These members are to represent the 'nations and regions', and it makes sense for their constituencies to match the nations and regions of the UK. It also helps to distinguish them further from MPs in the House of Commons: the larger the area, the less likely they are to do constituency work. We also recommend a formal convention to prevent this.

107. The size of constituencies may need to be adjusted depending on the numbers to be elected at each election. If the numbers prove to be too great to be accommodated in just twelve regional constituencies across the UK, we recommend that the Electoral Commission be invited to draw a new set of sub-regional boundaries.

The electoral system

108. The electoral system needs to be one which is complementary to that for the House of Commons; which will not lead to the domination of the second chamber by one political party; and which will help to promote the election of independent-minded people. The voting system is only one part of the overall electoral arrangements, and in terms of promoting independence it is not the most important part. To buttress the independence of the elected members the length of the elected term, and whether or not candidates can stand for re-election (and risk being de-selected) are far more important factors. We address these issues further below.

109. The Government proposes that the electoral system will be the same regional list system used for EP elections, in which parties present a 'slate' of candidates on a single list. The White Paper is silent on whether these will be 'open' lists, in which voters can express preferences between candidates, or 'closed' lists in which they simply vote for the party slate. The Royal Commission recommended open lists. In the parliamentary debates there was heavy criticism of closed lists, and not a single speaker could be found to speak in their defence.

110. We have not had time to consider in detail the choice of voting system. However, we have been able to agree on a number of principles. For example, like our parliamentary colleagues, we believe that closed lists are not acceptable, and a turn-off for voters.[54]

111. We recommend that any voting system for the second chamber should satisfy the following general principles. It needs to:

  • be complementary to the voting system for the House of Commons;

  • minimise the risk of one party gaining an overall majority;

  • maximise voter choice, by enabling voters to vote for individual candidates, within and across parties;

  • encourage a more diverse chamber; and

  • encourage the election of independent-minded people.

112. These principles will best be realised by using multi-member constituencies, and a proportional voting system. This could be either STV or regional lists, so long as the lists are fully open lists, which maximise voter choice. We would not support limited open lists, which present an appearance of choice for the voter, but almost never affect the outcome.

113. It may be mentioned that the Conservative Party's new proposals (which were published during the course of our inquiry) for an 80 per cent elected House, elected by first past the post in 80 'county' constituencies, would also threaten the principle that no party should have an outright majority in the second chamber. This is a principle which the Conservative spokesmen have previously supported. But even with staggered elections it would have delivered a majority for the Labour Party following their successful performance in the two general elections of 1997 and 2001. Research commissioned by the Royal Commission showed how first past the post could often deliver such a result.[55] We were assured in their evidence to us by the Conservative Leaders in both Houses, The Rt Hon Lord Strathclyde and The Rt Hon Eric Forth MP, that the party's new proposals are still open to refinement.[56] We hope that the party might think again about the electoral system, and re-state their support for the principle that no party should seek an outright majority. It cannot be in the Conservative interest, to say nothing of the national interest, for the Government of the day or any single party to be able to dominate the second chamber, as it can in the first. The Conservative proposal for county constituencies would also make it more likely that competition and friction would develop with MPs.

Timing of elections: the electoral cycle

114. The Royal Commission recommended that second chamber elections should be held along with those for the European Parliament, every five years. The White Paper argues that second chamber elections should be held on the same day as General Elections.

115. The one major difficulty with linking second chamber elections to general elections is that they have no fixed cycle. On three occasions in the last 50 years (1950/51, 1964/66, and 1974 (February and October)) two General Elections have been held in quick succession. However, the Government's proposal would have a number of advantages. The turnout for General Elections is considerably higher than that for European elections, and that would help to ensure a respectable turnout for the second chamber. It would also avoid the mid-term effect that characterises voting behaviour.

116. On balance, although we recognise the practical advantages of second chamber elections to coincide with European elections, we see a stronger case, on grounds of likely higher turnout, for linking them to General Elections. This case would be stronger still if the Government introduced fixed term Parliaments. We recommend that second chamber elections should take place at the same time as General Elections. Whether elected members should serve two or three Parliaments is something we turn to below.

Staggered elections, by halves or thirds

117. We took some evidence on whether all elected members should be elected at once, or whether the elections should be staggered, with only a half or a third of the members joining on each occasion. The White Paper leaves the answer to this question uncertain.

118. We regard it as extremely important that elections to the second chamber should be staggered as they are in many second chambers overseas. An influx of scores of new members to the chamber, each with a new mandate, could increase the risk of instability between the two chambers. It would also make it more difficult for the Appointments Commission to achieve the diversity of the chamber. Furthermore, we believe that the chamber would benefit from the continuity and stability provided by a membership that changed only gradually. We therefore recommend that elections to the second chamber should be staggered.

Linking the electoral cycle to the devolved assemblies

119. We also see advantages in the third option proposed in the White Paper, which would link second chamber elections with regional/national elections for devolved bodies. This offers a strong regional connection, staggered elections and four-year fixed terms. However at present only a small minority of the UK population are entitled to vote in these elections. If and when regional assemblies are created for the majority of the population in England, second chamber elections could be linked to elections for devolved bodies. This is something which should be kept under review.

Electoral terms

120. Terms of 15 years were proposed by the Royal Commission for both elected and appointed members, with no right of re-election. The aim was to encourage independence by removing the incentive for members to seek party favours. The Government tended to disagree with this approach, suggesting that 5 or 10 year terms, with no bar on re-election, would give greater accountability and flexibility.[57]

121. We believe that a renewable term as short as five years would both seriously jeopardise the independence of second chamber members and increase the risk of conflict with the members of the Commons. There would be greater likelihood of claims that the second chamber members were as legitimate as the MPs. Such a move would be a fundamental departure from the Royal Commission recommendations.

122. Fifteen years is an extremely long term by international standards; the next longest electoral term is the nine years served by members of the French Senate. However the second chamber must be different, distinctive and independent, and it should not be used as a springboard for political careers in the Commons. This is a strong argument for extended terms.

123. We suggested above that second chamber elections should be held at the same time as General Elections. The average length of the 15 Parliaments which have sat since 1945 has been 3.7 years. The average duration of two Parliaments in the last half century has thus been 7.5 years (with a variation 5 to 10 years), and three Parliaments 11.2 years (with a variation for three Parliaments of 8 to 14 years).

124. We recognise that it is not satisfactory to have elected members sitting for uncertain and variable terms. The solution would be to introduce fixed term Parliaments, but that is a much wider issue. In the interim, the options are terms of two or three Parliaments. On balance, our preference is that the elected members of the second chamber should be elected to sit for two Parliaments, and that they should be elected by halves. When it comes to the appointed members, discussed below, we recommend that they should serve a single non-renewable term of 10 years.

125. We believe that members should have only one opportunity of sitting in the second chamber, and should be barred from seeking election to the Commons for ten years after they leave it, as proposed by the Royal Commission. There should also be a bar on the political parties nominating as one of their candidates for appointment someone who has been an elected member of the second chamber.

126. We recommend that elected second chamber members should serve a single term extending to two Parliaments. No member of the second chamber should be permitted to stand for election to the Commons for ten years after leaving the second chamber. These restrictions would apply from the next general election. Political parties should not be allowed to nominate for appointment anyone who has served as an elected member of the second chamber.

Age limits

127. Age limits are another means of trying to ensure that people who enter the second chamber have experience and expertise to offer, and do not see it as a mere stepping stone to the Commons. Several of our witnesses suggested a limit of 45 or 50, and such provisions are a common feature of second chambers abroad.[58] But the House of Lords is already noted for its elderly membership, and we would be very reluctant to perpetuate the notion that second chamber members should be in retirement or at the end of their careers. We would not wish to exclude able people who have the capacity to make a contribution. If Parliament is to reconnect with young people, it should encourage them to participate.

53   HC 494-ii, Q198 Back

54   For detailed explanation of closed, open and semi-open lists, see The Constitution Unit, Commentary on the White Paper; The House of Lords, Completing the Reform, January 2002, Appendix B pp 28-38. Back

55   Cmd 4534 para 1.7 Back

56   HC 494-iii, Q312 Back

57   Cmd 5291 paras 54 and 58 Back

58   HC 494-ii Q 185/6 Back

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