Letter from John Austin, MP (LR 56)
You will know from my meetings with Gareth Williams,
Robin Cook and Charles Clarke that I strongly disagree with the
proposals contained in the White Paper and I believe that my concern
is shared by a majority of MPs and by the overwhelming majority
of Labour Party members.
I believe that the sense of anger felt by MPs
and party members would have been far less if the White Paper
had been presented as a step on the road to reform rather than
the final solution.
You and the Prime Minster have argued that,
as there is not a majority for any alternative package, this is
the only package on offer. I find this attitude both arrogant
and illogical, particularly as there is an evident and growing
body of opinion in Parliament that the upper chamber should be
I regret that the proposals have been put forward
without any consideration having been given to reform of the Commons
and the possibility of increasing the pre-legislative and scrutiny
roles of back-benchers through a revised committee structure.
I also find it incomprehensible that you can
be contemplating a revising and scrutiny role for the Lords with
a membership in excess of 600-700. If there is to be a second
chamber it should no larger that 200-300 and should be wholly
or substantially elected. My definition of substantial would be
a least two thirds.
In a democracy, I find it offensive that we
can have a chamber of the parliament substantially nominated or
appointed. Powers of patronage are an affront to democracy and
I have little confidence in an independent panel given our experiences
of the so-called "people's peers" who are indistinguishable
from those appointed through political patronage. Accountability
is an essential element of a democratic society and the ability
of the ruled to remove their rules.
This democratic principle must be central to
any reform. I accept that it may not be achieved in one go but
it should be worked towards.
I would suggest that a free vote of members
of the House of Commons should determine the size and the proportion
of elected members of the second chamber. Once those principles
are agreed we can debate how to get there.
In terms of reducing the size of the current
House, I do not believe we can rely on the "Grim Reaper"
to achieve an acceptable number and that a "redundancy"
package will need to be presented, firstly to attract volunteers
but I accept that at the end of the day compulsory retirement
may have to be introduced.
Once in place, the new second chamber might
wish to explore ways in which the knowledge and expertise of specialists
might be employed, possibly by co-options in an advisory capacity
for specific tasks.
The precise powers and limitations of power
of the second chamber will need to be defined and the process
of election considered, but these issues should not at this stage
distract us from the two fundamental decisions about the size
and the proportion of elected members.