Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Baroness Platt of Writtle (LR 40)


  It was my intention to speak in the House of Lords debate on 9 & 10 January, but as there were at least 70 speakers, I decided to write this letter instead.

  I spoke in the debates in our House on 14 October 1998 (columns 980-82) and 30 March 1999 (columns 288-90) and made a submission to the Royal Commission on 24 April 1999. I still adhere to the opinions I expressed then.

  As is well known, I am an engineer and believe strongly in the dictum "If it ain't broke don't fix it". Often disturbing the status quo in both mechanical and human systems results in more trouble, however well-intentioned the changes.

  The first stage of reform of this House has settled down and worked reasonably well. Where is the urgency for change when we are deeply involved in a long battle against terrorism, both at home and abroad; waiting lists for treatment in our health service grow longer, with acute shortage of doctors and nurses; and both the tube and the national railway system need energetic leadership and considerable financial investment if they are to operate safely, efficiently and punctually? In the public mind, which should be the driving force in a democracy, the solution to all those problems would have priority over changes to the House of Lords.

  I have read the Consultation Paper, and agree with many of the proposals on the summary pages at the beginning. The House will, of course, continue to cede final pre-eminence to the elected Commons. However, I would lay emphasis on the importance of its present powers to consider and revise legislation and scrutinise the Executive, and debate and report on public issues as stated, which must include requiring the Government and the House of Commons—whichever political party is in power—to reconsider proposed legislation and to take account of any cogent objections to it (p5 Rec2 Wakeham). The Government recognised that duty (p11) and the necessity for our House to have the power to press the Government hard to justify its actions—that is particularly necessary if any political party has a substantial majority in the Commons, where the Whips can command obedience.

  The problem then is how to set up the membership of the House of Lords over the years so that the Government of the day does not hold the majority here as well as in the Commons. That will be very difficult to control in bringing together existing Life Peers, a substantial elected element, and the work of the suggested Appointments Commission. I cannot see how those numbers can be made to add up, so that the Opposition Parties in the House of Lords can hold the Government to account in the manner required. It is vital this should be achieved.

  I am glad the Government is not going for a wholly elected House, since like them I believe it would result in damaging conflict between the two Houses, both feeling equally legitimate, whatever the method of election. The Government also accepts the prime importance of the independent crossbenchers in the work of our House; they would disappear as election inevitably leads to political polarisation. One of the virtues of the Lords, which I believe is in line with the wishes of the electorate, is that with a substantial independent element the House is not nearly as partisan as the "Other Place". Most people in this country are not very political. What they do want is efficient and effective public services to serve their needs. Very often a consensus on policy to operate over a period of time, with the opportunity for minor improvements where necessary, would serve the public better than substantial changes of policy after elections to demonstrate political power.

  The statutory Appointments Commission proposed must operate on a non-political basis and bring in to the House experienced men and women in a variety of fields with much needed talents and skills, so that they can exercise their influence, knowledge based, on both legislation and the work of Select Committees. I believe, not surprisingly, that is particularly important in the fields of Science, Engineering and Technology which remain scarce skills, unfortunately. As the present Chairman of the Lords Select Committee for Science and Technology said recently, its members try to be useful in their choice of subjects studied by the Committee. Over the last few years it has had considerable influence on both national and international policy—their reports on antibiotics, air travel and health, forensic science, non food crops and the public understanding of science to cite a few examples.

  I am glad we shall continue to enjoy the influence of the Law Lords and the Bishops, both groups of members with important experience and ethical opinions. I am sorry the numbers of Bishops may be reduced. If that had meant some representation from non-conformist Churches and other religions that would have been understandable, but it does not. I hope that will be looked at again.

  I do believe in the continuation of a part-time unpaid House, which allows men and women to stand, who are substantially involved in a wide range of fields of work, both paid and voluntary, to bring that experience to bear on our work. It is important that expenses are generously paid, and maybe loss of earnings, so that no one is prevented for financial reasons from giving their service to the House.

  In the Annual Report of the House of Lords, I am always impressed by the fact that although we carry out more sitting days, our costs per member and total costs are minuscule compared with MP's and MEP's. I think the part-time, unpaid rule should also apply to elected members as it does in Local Government. We cannot have one rule for elected members, and one for those appointed, as they will start to be regarded unequally, which would be difficult to cope with. Like a good many other things in the work of the Lords, the public, and even members in the "Other Place", have a very little knowledge of the more or less voluntary nature of a lot of hard work carried out there by members of all parties, and crossbenchers, both on the floor of the House and on Committees, and long may it continue!

  The members, whether elected or appointed must be people of probity as the Government lays down, which will be one of the responsibilities of the Appointments Commission to check and if necessary enforce. I am glad too that they will appoint more women, as they form about 50 per cent of the population and need to bring their point of view to bear on Affairs of State.

  Like the Royal Commission, I would like to see members either appointed or elected for 15 years, because that would give them sufficient security to encourage a spirit of independence. In one's first few years, one is leaning the ways of the House and, whether politically or otherwise, it is difficult to go against the stream, so that a longer term of office is necessary for them to exert that necessary spirit of independence. I agree with the idea of voluntary retirement as one gets older, but we have many examples in the House of octogenarians, and older, contributing most valuably to our work, so I do not want to see retirement becoming compulsory, particularly in the important context of a part-time unpaid House.

  I hope the two days' debate in the House of Lords will be listened to, and the responses to this Consultation Paper, so a better Bill will eventually be considered. I am glad the House of Commons Public Administration Committee is considering the matter. However, if it is to be properly and knowledgeably considered, I still hope a joint Parliamentary Committee of both Houses will be set up, so that some sort of consensus can be reached over such an important constitutional matter. If it takes more time, so be it.

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