Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Austin Mitchell MP (LR 34)


  The end of the provisional settlement, the inadequacy of the Wakeham proposals and the hostile reaction to the Government's self-serving proposals, combine to provide the opportunity for a complete new beginning. We can now devise from scratch a new Second Chamber (called the Senate or, preferably, the Legislative Council) to combine different methods of selecting members and take on new functions so as to give Britain the kind of Second Chamber it needs.

  The pressing needs are:

    (1)  A check on the overweening power of the Executive. The elective dictatorship has now become Presidential. The President/CEO controls the legislative through party majority, party loyalty and career politics, which condition people to creeping as a way of climbing. Whatever the Executive wants it gets and none of the instruments of control; questions; debates; select committees or scrutiny of legislation now provide effective checks. The Executive Rules. Not OK.

    (2)  An effective Second Chamber needs to apply a different set of minds, eyes and backgrounds to a second scrutiny, providing a second set of opinions and a second forum of debate so as to bring considerations wider than the obsessive political motivation of the Commons into play. The Commons is the stage for custard pie politics and the four year election campaigns. The Second Chamber needs to be at a distance from all this, less political, harder working, more considered.

    (3)  The ability to take on functions the Commons either does badly or isn't able to do at all because of the heavy pressure of business. The Commons are reforming themselves but the huge pressures of serving a constituency, acting as legislator and party politician, pursuing a political career and contributing to the wider public debate inhibit what MPs can do. It is becoming impossible for dutiful MPs to take on extra burdens. The Commons need help and an alleviation of their burden, though of course none of this is an argument against further reform of the Commons which needs to go on apace if the Commons are to play a proper part in the new bi-cameralism.

    Help can come from regional assemblies (Britain has fewer legislators per capita than most other systems—particularly federal ones). Yet in the immediate future only a re-invigorated Second Chamber can come to the rescue. It can take on functions such as pre-legislative consultation offering opportunities to make representations and hold hearings on all major legislation; legislative review after legislation has been in force for two years; more specialised committee enquiries; or less political or more serious issues, adding all this to the detailed consideration it already gives.

    (4)  A focus and access point for the UK's developing regionalism.

  To do these jobs the new Legislative Council (Leg Co) must have a legitimate and generally accepted base to rest on. Once the traditional base (initially hereditary, then membership of the peerage) has gone, the only available alternative in a democracy is election. Initially, like the Government but for different reasons, I suggested an elected minority on the grounds that a wholly elected chamber would be just like us, bringing in the same kind of people on the same party basis and inevitably challenging the First Chamber.

  I have now changed my mind. Election is the only legitimate base for the majority of members but is not incompatible with bringing in other members by other means. Starting from scratch allows us to get the best of all worlds so why not seize it? I therefore suggest a Chamber constituted the following bases:

    (i)  500 members regarded as full time and paid accordingly. The exact number can be varied up or down but we need a considerable expansion of Britain's legislative workforce.

    (ii)  60 per cent (300 members) elected on a regional basis. If there were a functioning structure of regional assemblies and governments they could be indirectly elected, as is the case in several other system. Since there isn't, direct elections by regions on an STV basis for eight years with half up for re-election every four years, is the best alternative. It is important that members be elected by a different system to the Commons. 300 would give the following distribution: Scotland 27, Wales 15, N Ireland 8, Eastern 27, E Midlands 22, London 34, NE 13, NW 35, SE 41, SW 25, W Midlands 27, Yorks 26.

    (iii)  100 hundred members appointed on a non-party basis by an Independent Commission mandated to select on grounds of quality, diversity, ability to contribute and independence so as to bring in people of ability and standing, who have not followed the party/election path and are not party ladder climbers. All with eight year terms.

    (iv)  20 members nominated by major interest groups such as the Churches, the TUC, CBI, Universities, Education, the voluntary sector and designated professional bodies. Four year terms renewable.

    (v)  80 members nominated by the parties. Modern politics requires some ability to nominate but this section is essentially intended to allow parties to carry out their business in the Chamber whether as ministers or shadows. It should not allow the Leg Co to be a dumping ground for political hacks or the disgraceful trading of parliamentary seats for titles, which happened at the last two elections. Four year terms renewed after each General Election.

    (vi)  Because of the need for experience, proven quality and a different membership to the career politicians who dominate the Commons I suggest a minimum age for membership and 45 seems appropriate. This would prevent the Leg Co becoming a springboard into the Commons as the European Parliament has been.

    (vii)  Powers. These should be maximised:

      (a)  Draft legislation should be introduced first in the Leg Co unless designated as urgent. Each Bill should be advertised inviting representations to the Leg Co committee hearing it in writing, the best then being heard by the Committee.

      (b)  Some power of delay is necessary to make the Executive think again. A year is excessive. Any Leg Co amendment of legislation passed by the Commons should go back to the Commons. If it rejects the Leg Co view there should be a compulsory and public conference. If no agreement is reached the Leg Co should withdraw its opposition.

      (c)  Legislation designed as "constitutional" by an independent Commission (perhaps the Electoral Commission) should be subject to a longer delaying power of one or two years with the Leg Co having power to require a referendum if it is unable to assent.

      (d)  Membership of Leg Co committees should be nominated by a committee representative only of the independent members with Chairs elected by secret ballot of the whole House.

      (e)  There should be provision for joint committee meetings of both Houses and special committees including members of both. Ministers in both Houses should be able to contribute to committees of the other and ministers in the Commons should be available to answer in the Chamber of the Leg Co.

      (f)  The question system presently used by the Lords should be retained since it allows more serious consideration than Commons' questions.


  A broad proposal like this can't resolve every problem or deal with every question. It does, however, provide a firm basis for reform well calculated to give us a Second Chamber fit for use, and able to make a serious contribution to better governance as well as remedying some of the faults of the existing system. Achieving that requires us to think more boldly than has been the case up to now.

January 2002

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