Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Rt Hon Lord Owen (LR 30)

  Thank you for your letter on behalf of the Public Administration Select Committee seeking my views on House of Lords Reform.

  I set out my personal views in the attached submission.

David Owen

  I sit as an independent Social Democrat on the Crossbenches in the House of Lords. I am not a tremendous attender and I write that unapologetically, since I did not join the House of Lords in order to be a regular attender. I attend most debates on international affairs. I vote extremely rarely because I am not convinced in my own mind that I have much legitimacy over voting.

  There are two crucial elements in any legislative chamber—the voice and the vote. I attach great importance to the vote being exercised by someone elected, the right to speak granted to an appointed member can have real value and influence on the voting members.

  I am in favour of a bicameral Parliament comprised of members of the House of Commons and House of Lords with the prefix MP and ML. Titles can be a matter for individuals to determine whether they use it or not. The present distribution of powers is broadly correct. I am in favour of a primary legislative chamber and under our system that is and should remain the House of Commons composed entirely of elected members. All major powers should reside with the House of Commons; the braking mechanism lies in the second chamber. In terms of the vote the brake should be applied by elected members only. Appointed members of the House of Lords should only have the braking power of persuasion in debate with the elected members in the Chamber of the Lords or in Select Committees. It was extraordinary that the Royal Commission chaired by Lord Wakeham concluded that the House of Lords should not be a second chamber for devolved institutions. How one can argue for scrutiny by a bicameral Parliament for England, and for Wales while it is not a fully legislative chamber, over devolved powers and not for legislative powers devolved to Scotland and Wales is beyond my comprehension. I have always supported a Scottish legislative Parliament and also a Northern Ireland Assembly but have felt they needed the braking mechanism of a second chamber. The Royal Commission said that there were problems in Cardiff and Edinburgh when it raised that point. I would have expected that. People in an unicameral parliament by and large do not want second-guessing or a brake mechanism. To retain the unity of the United Kingdom, and the supposed challenge to that unity has always been one of the biggest arguments against devolution, we need to buttress in every constitutional way the overall authority of the United Kingdom.

  I believe there will come a time when the House of Lords, as a second chamber, will be required to have a legislative brake on the devolved legislatures. It would, however, be very hard to justify this in the modern world unless the people who were putting on that brake were elected. The Royal Commission recommendations for a part elected, part appointed House of Lords has merit. Personally, I think we need a model D, going up to 261. Elected voting members should be paid a salary. Appointed speaking members should be paid through the Attendance Allowance system. The elected members in the House of Lords would follow the same Code of Conduct and Declaration of Interests as for MPs. The appointed members should follow the new system to come into place next year for the House of Lords.

  In a book, Face the Future, which was published in 1981, I first advocated an elected House of Lords with some additional non-voting membership; Lords who had special interests and experience, knew about particular professions and trade unions. It will be argued against non-voting appointed members that you cannot have two classes of members. But we will have two classes of members if we have some elected. It is said that the House of Lords is a club and everybody must be the same, but we are not the same at the moment. If you are a so-called working peer, you undertake broadly to follow the party Whip. Obviously you are not mandated, but you turn up for a fair amount of the legislation of the House of Lords. I think the House of Lords votes far too much, but that is jut a personal observation as I watch it with too much of the ritualised voting that I took part in for 26 years in the House of Commons. It is necessary in the House of Commons as part of the delaying power of the Opposition. It seems to me unnecessary to replicate that in the House of Lords. The House of Lords does need the legislative power to make the House of Commons think again as exercised by the vote, and in very rare cases delaying legislation also retaining the right to veto an extension of the life of the House of Commons.

  I find the Royal Commission's conclusion that it is an error to suppose that the second chamber's authority can only stem from democratic elections an ill-advised remark. Election is the lifeblood of democracy, people with voting powers in parliament who are not elected do not have a democratic mandate but their voting reduces the democratic authority of the second chamber. If the British Parliament at the start of the twenty first century endorses this wording from the Royal Commission it could allow people in future to justify all sorts of forms of governance under the guise of democracy. We have just seen the House of Lords in their examination of the emergency legislation on terrorism demonstrate the value of a second chamber. No-one reading those debates can doubt that some of the expert opinion expressed influenced the debate and justified their appointment. But I believe their influence would have been felt on any elected member and their value to the second chamber would not be diminished by the fact that they did not have voting power. Also the vote of elected members would have had a greater legitimacy and authority in changing the legislation.

December 2001

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