Draft House of Lords Reform Bill - Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill Contents

Rt Hon Baroness Hayman (QQ 612-620)

Q612   The Chairman: Thank you very much for coming, Lady Hayman. I am sorry that we are a bit delayed, but you have been listening to the proceedings so you know why. I hope that you will accept my apologies for keeping you waiting. Would you like to make a brief statement before we start the questions? Indeed, perhaps it would be a good idea if you did.

Baroness Hayman: Thank you, Lord Chairman, and I thank the Committee for allowing me to give evidence and for being understanding about the fact that I did not feel able to submit written evidence on the timetable set by the Joint Committee, since I had a period of self-imposed purdah on talking about House business after leaving my position as Lord Speaker. I feel that the new year has empowered me to speak more frankly and I am grateful for the opportunity to give evidence today.

Could I start with some fundamentals about my own views? I believe that the House of Lords does an important job as a revising Chamber well, but that it could do the job better and needs to change. I believe that the period since 1999 has seen some stalling in change, partly because of the difficulty of resolving the sorts of issues that have just been discussed around election. I also believe that there are ways in which we could go forward. Picking up on one of the points made earlier, I do not think that the case against election is automatically a case against reform. My experience of living through many attempts at 'reform'—this is not a term of art, but perhaps 'all-singing, all-dancing reform', if I can put it that way—has been that trying to do everything often ends up in doing nothing. So I hope to have the opportunity today to talk about some of the areas where it is possible to build, if not unanimity, then consensus: which in a sense would clear away the undergrowth for resolution of an issue that, as the past hour and a half has clearly demonstrated, is fundamental and deeply divisive: whether election would destabilise the relationship between the two Houses in a way that was detrimental to the performance of Parliament as a whole, and I am committed to improving the performance of Parliament as a whole.

A huge number of the issues that are dealt with in the White Paper and the Bill need speedy action. Let me start with the size of the House. As it is at the moment, the size of the House is unsustainable; that is a quite a neutral word. The White Paper cites, as was mentioned earlier, an average daily attendance of 388. That is not the current figure but one taken for the 2009-10 Session. The current figure, for which I asked the Information Office today, is an average daily attendance of 493. There were six votes in the three months up to 31 December 2011 in which more than 450 people voted, the highest total being 592. We are operating with a size of House that does not function properly and which I think is indefensible. We need to do something about the size of the House and I believe that we could get agreement on that.

I believe that it would also be possible to get agreement on the balance between independent Peers and party-political Peers in terms of the proportion of each in the House. It would be possible, although as I look around the table I think not easy, to get agreement on the view that the hereditary principle should not play any part in the future membership. I also believe that it would be possible to agree to end the link between the honours system and membership of the second Chamber. All of this is in the White Paper.

I think that it would be possible to deal with the issue of time limits for appointments—that is, time-limited appointments. It would be possible to deal with the establishment and remit of the statutory Appointments Commission and with provisions for retirement and exclusion. If we did those things and cleared that undergrowth, the issue of whether what you gain in democratic legitimacy from election outweighs what you lose both in terms of experience and expertise as well as the current focusing of democratic accountability in one place—the clarity that we have at the moment, and the complementarity of the two Houses could be considered. We have had a lot of conversations about referendums. That would be an issue which could be put in a referendum. But at the moment there are so many issues that it would be very difficult to focus the public debate on how to go forward.

Lord Hennessy said that it cannot go on like this. My fear is that it can go on like this. My gravest concern, whatever my views on the proposals in the White Paper and the Bill, is that out of this will come not an elected House but a messy debate that ends up with no progress whatever and what I consider to be a House of Lords that is not improving its performance as a parliamentary Chamber, because we are not making any incremental progress. When I look at my own political lifetime, I remember that I went to secondary school at a time when there was not a single woman in the House of Lords. If I look at the transformation during the timeframe of my political lifetime, I can see that there is an enormous opportunity for continuing that evolution. I know that many people think that it is some sort of strategy to avoid any change to talk about a two-stage approach. I honestly do not believe that that is so, and that it would be easier and quite possible to focus on the question of whether the party-political Peers of the Houses of Lords are elected or appointed on the recommendation of their party leaders as a freestanding issue when you have dealt with all the other things. Earlier someone asked us to say not just what we are against but what we are for, so I hope I have risen to that challenge.

Q613   The Chairman: Thank you very much. Perhaps I may pursue one of your points, which is the size of the House. You are clearly of the view that the House is much too big and I suppose that, if there is going to be a set of new creations, it will obviously be that much bigger. You say that we can deal with that, but how would you actually reduce the size of the House?

Baroness Hayman: We have to do several things. We could start with a moratorium on new Peers. The second thing would be that in the future we would have term appointments. The third is that we have to come to some sort of agreement on the size of House that we want to see and then see what that size would mean for the party groups and the Cross Benches. Those groups would then have to take on the responsibility of reducing their numbers.

The Chairman: I see. For the sake of argument, let us take the figure that has been in the press recently, that of 450. To reduce the House down to 450, you would have to get rid of about 400 Peers. How quickly would you want to see that done?

Baroness Hayman: My preference would be not to do it overnight, but I am not quite on the same timeframe as the White Paper of waiting until 2025. You could do it over five to 10 years.

The Chairman: I am advised that it would need legislation in order to do it.

Baroness Hayman: Yes. My shopping list involves legislation.

Q614    Lord Tyler: I wonder whether you could go a little further in your interesting analysis from your new vantage point of the way in which the House is currently working. We all accept that the active membership is between 400 and 500. That of course means that 200 to 300 do not come regularly, which is quite interesting. Could you comment on the fact that the majority of those who are active—particularly those who do not just vote but are active all day, every day—are, like me, semi-retired politicians? We are a very political House. The idea that you may have gathered over the past couple of hours, that we are somehow totally independent of party and never take any notice of our Whips, might seem a little rose-tinted from your vantage point. Is that a fair comment?

Baroness Hayman: It depends on whether you like politicians or not. Let me just pick up on the point that just under 500 Peers are active. The average daily attendance is 493, but it is not the same people every day. A lot more people than that are active, so the scale of the problem, as the Lord Chairman has pointed out, is substantial.

Lord Tyler is absolutely right to say that there are a lot of party-political Peers who are active. I am a superannuated Commons politician from a very long time ago. It is interesting that the appointments process encourages the appointment not only of people who have lived their lives in party politics but also of those who have party affiliations and commitments but who have not lived their lives in politics. This is the issue of expertise, if not independence. Whether it is PD James or Melvyn Bragg, people come in as political appointees, but their lives and the experiences that they bring to the House are not purely party political. That is one of the subtleties of the House that I believe would change: it has been put to me, what is the difference between the Prime Minister or the party leaders nominating their list and the party apparatus nominating its list? But I believe that the current culture encourages a wider range of people to come in as party-political appointees. We then get to the issue of age and whether being past ambition frees up most people in the House of Lords in terms of independence in their political activities.

Q615    Lord Tyler: Perhaps I can take this one step further. I think that you would also recognise, from your much longer experience in the House than mine, that the occasions when expertise leads a Member who has been party appointed or belongs to a party group to vote against his or her party are relatively limited.

Baroness Hayman: They are limited. I am glad that you asked me that because I want to take up an issue that was raised earlier. It was asserted that when there are government defeats in the House of Lords, it is not because of expertise but because of the numbers. Over the past five years I made a lot of visits to schools to talk about the House of Lords. The example that I always gave was the proposal to abolish the post of Chief Inspector of Prisons. The reason why it was defeated in the Lords and why the Commons did not attempt to resurrect it was because it was Lord Ramsbotham, an ex-Chief Inspector of Prisons, who led a revolt of people who had worked in the criminal justice system. I believe that it was that which made the Government change their mind. In many cases I think that it is more about influence than assertiveness.

Yes, people obey their Whips. However, I am tempted to say that I led one rebellion in the whole of my political life. It was on the issue of control orders and a sunset clause for them. The Parliament Act would not have done a lot of good with that because of the time lag. The sunset clause would have applied after a year. We won with an overwhelming majority against some of the—I will not say "blandishments"—threats of my own Whips at the time. It went to the Commons and came back, and we won again. However, I stepped back the second time. The role of the House of Lords is to ask the House of Commons to think again. We asked once, and we asked twice. I then said, "That is it. I am done here". I have to say to the Committee that if I had had any sort of electoral mandate in that situation, I would not have stepped back. So I think that the assertion in Clause 2 of the Bill is nonsense. You can then have an argument about whether you want that to happen, and the benefits of it, but to pretend that it would not happen is, I think, a nonsense.

Q616   Laura Sandys: You are extremely experienced in the political system and how the House of Lords works. I welcome the points that you have made about reform because I am sure we all agree that both Houses should look at a lot of things in terms of reform in order to be more effective. However, what is interesting is the diffidence of those in the House of Lords about being more assertive and exercising greater power. As we have heard from people who have presented their views to us, the House of Lords probably has more extensive powers than any other second Chamber, but in some ways it self-restricts. It appears that you think that that is good, which I find fascinating. My position is that Parliament should be more assertive. We need not necessarily just greater capacity against the Executive, which is the constant issue, but much greater assertiveness and capacity against pressure groups and people running campaigns that we do not have the capacity to counter. On the basis of being more assertive and taking the full powers that are offered to the second Chamber, are you inhibited by the lack of democracy and the lack of election? Because you are not elected, but regulate and self-restrict, do we have a weaker second Chamber?

Baroness Hayman: Self-evidently, we have. We have reached an accommodation between the two Chambers that they should not be rivals; they should be complementary. I absolutely did not have to stop voting against the Government the third time around, but I did so because I respect the sovereignty of the lower House. I am not sure that I see Parliament coming together in that rose-coloured way: becoming stronger for having two elected Chambers—elected on different mandates and with different roles. I fear the problem, which has been discussed already, of clashes between the two Houses. I also fear a blurring of democratic accountability. At the moment, when a government proposal is either overturned or goes through, the electorate can make their judgment in a general election for the lower House. That is where the democratic accountability and power flow. Who do you vote against if it was the House of Lords that blocked a piece of legislation rather than the House of Commons? We have clarity about where democratic accountability lies. I recognise that people take this in different ways. I want to see a more influential House of Lords because it is respected and because that is more justifiable than it is at the moment, but I do not want to see a more powerful House as against the House of Commons.

Q617   Laura Sandys: Perhaps I may pick up on two small things. Each Parliament has its own nature and characteristics. This House of Commons has been much more "rebellious" than any other. Do you not feel that there is a change in the dynamic which also requires a change in the House of Lords? Parliament is possibly evolving into something more assertive, and that offers the House of Lords an opportunity to change. Again, however, is it not inhibited from doing so by its lack of a democratic mandate? May I quickly add one other thing? Among all the other terminology that we need to look at, I am interested in the term "lower House", which is interesting given that the Commons is meant to have primacy. When you are communicating externally, I think that that is a problem. There is also an issue when it is said that there is only expertise in the House of Lords, but we have a lot of doctors, medical professionals and people in the judiciary, including lawyers. We are creating a differentiation that is sometimes not totally fair on the House of Commons.

Baroness Hayman: No, and I would not like to undermine the expertise and experience or, indeed, the value of the House of Commons. What I felt when I was a Member of the House of Commons was the extraordinary thing that, as a friend of mine used to put it, you have been anointed by the popular vote. That is very, very special. It trumps expertise or whether you are a doctor, a scientist or anything else. You have the enormous privilege and responsibility of representing your constituents. That is a unique position.

Q618   John Thurso: I say "Hear, hear" to that. Lady Hayman, in my judgment you have set out brilliantly why the current House of Lords is simply insupportable and I thank you for that. You and I will disagree about election, so I will park that. What you have done is to set out an alternative, which is for an appointed House, with our looking at the numbers, terms of 15 years and so on—all the issues on which we may be able to reach consensus. If we are able to come to a consensus on those things and then the only question left is whether Members should be elected or appointed, and if those who believe from the bottom of their hearts, as I do, that election is the preferable route but they are prepared to compromise and go with appointment for the time being, why can we not move to that within 12 months, as we did with the hereditaries? The 800 of us who were surplus to requirements took our P45s with a hop and skip and left.

Lord Rooker: A hop and a skip?

John Thurso: Actually, I recall that we tottered off with a glass of bubbly wine and a canapé. Why can we not just get on with it? If we have 500 or 600 people who are absolutely brilliant, as has been the evidence to date, and we decide that 450 is the right number, why do we not just make the changes in 12 months and have done with it?

Baroness Hayman: My recall of the hop and the skip is slightly different from yours, but let us not quarrel about that. I expect that the answer is that I have become rather sentimental. I can see the argument for moving more swiftly on reducing the numbers than I have suggested. It could be done, and I think that we have to make progress on it. I hope that I have not suggested that the House of Lords is "insupportable" at the moment, which was the word that you used. I said that it is unsustainable. The pressure is becoming overwhelming. As a parliamentarian, I find it offensive that there is seating in the Chamber from which you cannot speak or make an intervention. I do not think that that is right. There are a lot of things that we need to make progress on.

The House is still doing a respectable job within its current remit. I spent five years talking about second Chambers and meeting people from other second Chambers. They are bemused as to how we have got to where we have, but they are very respectful of the work that the House does. Indeed, I think that the issue of the legitimacy of the output of the House is one that we should look at, as well as the legitimacy of how people become Members, which I think could be improved and made more open by a statutory Appointments Commission with its remit being made public, and so forth.

Q619   John Thurso: I agree with you and I would never question the quality of the work of either the House itself or the Members of the House. It has always been my regret that the Commons does not actually listen very often, which is the real problem. What I am driving at here is a different point. The theory is that, if you elect through tranches, it would act as a form of indoctrination into the better ways of the House of Lords. If, on the other hand, you decide to go for appointment, you will not need that because you already have the people there. Given that, is there any argument other than—not wishing to be too brutal to colleagues—saying, "Gone to appointment, chosen 450, now each party can work it out," as we did with the hereditaries? Is there any argument other than being quite brutal and saying, "We have decided to have 450 Members by appointment. Let's just get it over and done with"? What is to stop that?

Baroness Hayman: There is nothing to stop it. One of the difficulties, I have to say, has been created by the appointment of 110 new Peers in the past 12 months. It means that some people would have a very short period of time in the House. That is why the reality of where we are and the people who are here has to be looked at. It makes it more difficult but not impossible.

Q620    Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: These are intriguing possibilities. I am very grateful to you for making the clear distinction between influence and assertiveness. You have drawn an important point to our attention. I also agree with the point that being sustainable is different from what is supportable. Let me bring you back to your original ideas about how one might clear away the undergrowth. There may be all sorts of arguments about the exact size of the House, the balance between independent Peers and party-political appointments and, indeed, the hereditary principle, but most of those—save the difficulties for some of our colleagues—would not cause too much trouble. However, I would like to ask you about retirements. We know that 19 Peers are aged over 90, yet whenever one gets anywhere near a sensible discussion about a suitable retirement age, naked self-interest rears its head as usual. I just wonder whether you have given any thought to what a suitable retirement age for the Lords would be. One of the things that I feel strongly about is the attendance record. We may see different Peers on different days, but it seems to me that if the House sits for only 140 days a year, a minimum requirement should be that Peers attend for 50 per cent of the time. That is not a desperately onerous requirement. I wonder whether you have given any thought to those sorts of limiting factors which would help in winnowing out what I agree is a House of Lords that at the moment is just too big and rather unwieldy.

Baroness Hayman: I have thought a lot about it and have had some difficulty in coming to very clear conclusions. I was taught as a student that hard cases make bad law, but when you see the contribution made in the House by a limited number of Peers who are in fact very elderly, it is difficult simply to set an age limit. I think that the same is true in the Commons. I would go for the basic situation of having a term limit of service. One of the issues is about current expertise and that that may not be the case over time. But I believe that there needs to be some sensitivity and flexibility around this issue.

The Chairman: There is a Division in the Commons and I fear that we are about to become inquorate. Thank you very much, Lady Hayman. I am sorry that the meeting has been shortened by a Division.

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