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On the other hand, I can accept the argument for elections. I have been a democrat all my life. I have spent more than half of it fighting and, on the whole, winning elections of one kind or another. But the Government’s problem is that, while they want to claim legitimacy for their proposals, they do not want to face the consequences, because, as many noble Lords have said, if there are 100 per cent elections, there will be no Cross-Benchers, no Bishops and none of the expertise that people proudly say they admire and respect in your Lordships’ House. I do not want to be too unkind to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, because we are old friends and colleagues, but he said that the House should not vote again for a train wreck. Among others, he was adamant throughout the work of the Joint Committee on Conventions that this House above all else should preserve the right to say, No and to say to the other House, “We don’t agree; we think you’ve got that wrong”. So there is a dichotomy in that argument. This House is entitled to say what it wants to say about these proposals.

This might or might not please the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, but perhaps a quotation from the Gospel according to St Mark is apposite. Chapter 3, verses 24 to 25, states:

We are talking about proposals to divide this House against itself. They are not particularly well-thought-out proposals—the Government’s White Paper leaves many questions unanswered. Are the people of Britain really keen on having a second Chamber full of professional politicians? Are they keen to face the financial and other consequences of that? Are they prepared to build Portcullis House mark II? These are really serious questions in a democracy. We cannot expect people to sign what is, in effect, at the moment, a blank cheque for proposals without much further serious discussion about the most profound consequences that will flow from them.

I hope that my noble friends and my right honourable and honourable friends in the other place will take very serious note of the views expressed in this House and genuinely go away and reflect on the direction in which, to quote the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, this train is running. One of the problems with this train is that too many people have a ticket on it, regardless of its destination. We should think very, very carefully before taking what will be irrevocable steps in changing fundamentally the constitution of our country. The reality is that we have checks and balances now, but it is also the case—and all my experience shows this—that it is possible to fragment power, it is possible to disperse power, it is possible to dilute it and share it, but it is never possible to get it back again.

6.05 pm

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, at the risk of appearing naive to the point of eccentricity, I propose to take the Government at their word; that is, I am prepared to accept, against all the evidence, that they really want an effective second Chamber, but are concerned that it cannot be effective as at present constituted because it lacks legitimacy—an attribute which they mistakenly believe can derive only from directly elected Members.

At least, as has been pointed out so eloquently by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, and a moment ago by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, this should dispose of any support for a hybrid House, since, if legitimacy can be conferred only by election, a partially elected house will be considered only partially legitimate, which is clearly unacceptable. This seems to have been accepted by the other place in its overwhelming support for a wholly elected second Chamber which, at least, clears the air, and to which I will return in a moment.

First, we need to recognise that just as democracy is not the only important characteristic of an acceptable constitution—the rule of law and respect for individual freedom, for example, are at least as important—so democratic legitimacy is not the only form of legitimacy. Indeed, of all the institutions that embody an acceptable constitution, democratic legitimacy is required only of the Government, in the sense that the people must be given the opportunity, at regular intervals, peacefully, at the ballot box, to remove a Government who they no longer want. That is the essence of democratic legitimacy.

An appointed second Chamber is wholly compatible with this, provided that that Chamber is unable to prevent the Government from governing. That is the important justification for the primacy of the House of Commons and that, in the event of any dispute between the two Houses, the Commons has the last word after only a moderate delay. It is also the reason why we do not for a moment believe that an appointed and non-elected judiciary in any way lacks legitimacy.

Noble Lords will recall also that of all the constitutional changes enacted so far by this Administration, the only one that has enjoyed almost universal acclaim was the first: the transfer of responsibility for monetary policy and the setting of interest rates from a democratically elected Minister, directly accountable to the House of Commons, to an independent Bank of England and an appointed Monetary Policy Committee. This, as it happens, was something that I had long advocated, only to be told on every occasion that it was undemocratic. But today, only 10 years after its inception, the legitimacy of a system whereby interest rate decisions are taken by the appointed Monetary Policy Committee is unquestioned.

Within the overall framework of a democratic system of government, not only are non-elected institutions like the judiciary and the Bank of England rightly regarded as fully legitimate, but the expertise and independence that they embody are rightly seen as precious attributes in the service of the nation. That we in this House, as at present constituted, possess a range of experience, expertise and achievement, which the House of Commons cannot to the same extent demand, is generally acknowledged. What is not so generally recognised is that we, and not simply the Cross-Benchers, are also genuinely independent. The fact that very few of us on this side, for example, accept the policy of our Front Bench is one indication of that.

That independence stems largely from the logic of life tenure. In the old days, university professors enjoyed life tenure to give them complete academic independence. I have to confess that our independence also stems from our age. Some of our great organs of the press—incidentally, I would not dream of accusing the fourth estate of a lack of legitimacy because its editors are appointed and not elected—appear to believe that our average age of 68 is somehow a disadvantage. As someone who celebrated—if that is the right word—his 75th birthday only yesterday, 68 seems to me rather young, but the fact that most of us are too old to seek advancement or preferment is an important dimension of our independence in this House.

So the case against an appointed House of Lords has little merit. Nevertheless, the House of Commons has voted by a substantial majority for a wholly elected second Chamber, and that has to be respected so far as it goes. However, before that change can come about, the whole question of the relative powers of the two Houses would have to be revisited, as the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions made clear—we have just been reminded of that by its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham—and as common sense dictates.

There is also the practical aspect. It is hard enough to get sufficient people of real ability to embrace the hurly-burly of electoral politics to fill the lower House. If an elected upper House is to remain as thoroughly subordinate as it is today, inevitably the best will enter the House of Commons, and they will stay there if there is no possibility of being appointed to the second Chamber. The second best, if they are Scottish or Welsh, will choose the devolved Assemblies, and, if they are English, they will choose either the European Parliament or their county council, depending on the nature of their interests. That will leave a second Chamber of third-raters. Is that what we really wish to see? Is that how you enhance the effectiveness of the second Chamber?

In brief, if we are to have two wholly elected Houses, their powers should be roughly—I do not say precisely—equal. That is not something that I advocate but I recognise that it is a perfectly workable constitution, as the example of the United States demonstrates. Should that be proposed to us at any time in the future, I believe that we would have to accept it, and accept that the day of a non-elected second Chamber is over. But, until such a proposal is put to us, it is our duty to preserve the integrity of our constitution by continuing with a wholly appointed House. I believe most strongly that that is how we should vote on Wednesday.

6.14 pm

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I am afraid that I rise to contradict my Front Bench in that I believe in a wholly appointed House, and I feel that I should say so.

I have some experience of elections, including the first election to the European Parliament, which I fought very hard. I organised my own district and my family were a great help. I polled a good vote but was beaten by a good Conservative. A totally negative Labour chap came within 50 votes of me, despite my enormous effort and the fact that he had put in no effort whatever. That meant that the election was one of parties and the efficiency of the party was all.

Voters are currently a bit cynical about the number of elections that they have to take part in. The European elections polled 38 per cent; the general election was the best of the lot, running from 77 to 61 per cent on the last occasion, and it appears to me that that is the election that we should go by. There is also, as the previous speaker said, no question that the winners of an election to this House based on the European constituency would be party nominees. Someone referred to the doctor who won an election in his constituency because of anger at the state of a hospital there. That is true and it can happen in a reasonably sized constituency, but in the large groups which constitute the European constituencies—under which elections for this House would apparently come—reasonable results are not achieved other than through votes for a party. So, in fact, democracy would be better served by taking the total vote, as opposed to the total number of seats, and allocating seats in this House according to that. In my view, that would be a far better system.

If we went for an appointed House—we might, because the House of Commons has changed its mind two or three times already—that would simplify matters enormously, quite apart from saving a huge amount of money. There are 199 Peers in this House over the age of 75—at 87, I am one of them—and 300-odd over the age of 70, and we really need to get rid of us. We cannot be shot—I understand that that would not be possible—but I think that a retirement scheme could reduce the numbers to the required level without waiting for people to die. It is rather macabre to calculate how many are dying each year; it would be far better to have a retirement scheme.

Many of the arguments that I had rehearsed have been ably put, so I simply end by saying that an appointed House, rather than an elected one, would be far more in the tradition of this House. An appointed House would be an improvement on the present arrangement and it would be able to continue the traditions. In spite of my Front Bench, whose members I admire greatly, I am all for an appointed House.

6.19 pm

Lord Trimble: My Lords, it would be easy to say that I entirely agree with many of the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and that having referred to them, I almost feel as though I could rest my case. However, perhaps I can put my own arguments in a slightly summary form. The noble and learned Lord was absolutely right in his analysis that the choice is essentially between an appointed body and an elected body. The arguments put against hybrid bodies are unanswerable, so that is the choice.

If there is an elected body, the points that came out from the excellent report of the Conventions Committee apply. As the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, has said, that report was careful to say that it was dealing only with the present situation, and that if an elected element comes into the House the conventions will be reconsidered. That is true. Elected persons will want to exercise their mandate. The theoretical powers of this House are enormous; they will want to exercise those theoretical powers and they will not regard themselves as limited by conventions which are based on the fact that this House is not elected. One simply has to state that to see that that is the case.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor seemed to be arguing that the only way of restraining the tendency of elected members to exercise the theoretical powers is by legislating in some way. If one were to legislate on that, inevitably one would be drawn towards what appears to be the position of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—that we should move towards adopting a formal, comprehensive written constitution. That is an enormous undertaking and it would result in bringing the courts and the judges into Parliament to arbitrate, which is not our tradition and would not be welcome to everyone here.

The train of thought that I am developing seems to lead towards the conclusion of the noble Lords to whom I referred at the outset—namely, an appointed body. But, for a variety of reasons, there is distaste for the concept. I want to lay before your Lordships an example of procedure elsewhere, which managed to combine a form of election with retaining, completely unaffected, the supremacy of the lower House. It worked quite satisfactorily and, as far as I am aware, it has not been mentioned so far in the literature—I have not read as widely as some and I may be corrected. I refer to the experience in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1971 with our Senate, the upper House.

That House was almost entirely elected, with only two ex officio persons. The members were elected by the Northern Ireland House of Commons by single transferable vote—proportional representation—for an eight-year period, with half of them elected every four years. Although the members were elected, their electoral mandate stemmed from the Northern Ireland House of Commons and they were, in a sense, accountable to that House. The upper House acted as a revising chamber, as this Chamber tries to do, without in any way challenging the authority of the Commons.

Those who were elected did not have to canvass and campaign. They were relieved of the need to seek election, which is a significant factor in getting people into a revising body. Plenty of people with valuable expertise do not want to stand for election, so it was beneficial in that respect. As the electorate in the Commons could tell from their composition how many persons they would elect, in substance the Senate was appointed, so that was a way of squaring the circle. That may not be considered appropriate, but I thought it worth mentioning. By doing so, I do not want my fellow Cross-Benchers to think that I want to get rid of the Cross Benches—I say that for my own self-preservation, if for no other reason.

I have been a Member of this House for less than a year. I was in the other place for much longer. Like almost everyone who has come from the other place, I approached this issue wanting to maintain the authority and the supremacy of the House of Commons. It has been said here quite rightly that the House of Commons does not really understand what happens here. That is not the question. The problem is that the House of Commons today does not seem to understand the effect its vote will have on the Commons, if it is ever carried into law and those changes are brought about. I do not think that MPs appreciate fully the extent to which what they appear to want to do will bring about a massive change in the Commons, and a massive transfer of power away from the Commons to the elected element here. Some of those who voted for the 100 per cent elected option may well be aware of the spanner that they were appearing to toss into the works.

I have agreed with some of those who spoke earlier but I end by disagreeing. I am sorry that my disagreements are almost entirely with the Liberal Democrats. I do not think it is appropriate to speak about the vote in the other place last week as being a decisive fact. It was a significant factor, but it has not decided anything and decisions are some way away. If the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will forgive me for saying it, it is wrong to start warning us of the dangers of confrontation. We are nowhere near that point yet. We are entitled to take whatever view we think of the matter and we are entitled to ask those in the other place to think again. I add to that a strong plea to those in the other place to think again, because if they proceed further down the path on which they have started, they will do enormous damage to themselves and hence to the functioning of this Parliament as a whole. I think we should do what we can to avoid that consequence.

6.27 pm

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I was very interested by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and I regret that time does not allow me to engage with it, as I dare to endorse the principle of an elected majority for our second Chamber. Appointment of 20 per cent independent Members is indeed a way to deliver high-calibre people with particular experience and diversity, but it would not be impossible to devise public participation in that choice. Nor is it difficult for party lists to include such people. As I travel, I have seen 100 per cent elected second Chambers, as well as hybrid legislatures, which work effectively. The key, surely, is the powers and the constitutional role they have. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, I say that in fact it would surely be simpler if we had a written constitution. It would be clearer to operate, easier to communicate, easier to teach in schools, and a much easier way to reflect our sense of national identity. We shall need to give more thought to powers and limitations on powers, and to the nature of the second Chamber’s constituency and the task its Members should have. I hope we do this by way of a coherent, codified constitution. The next Prime Minister and his Government can be the founding mothers and fathers of the new order.

If we were designing a second Chamber de novo, surely it would be a secular one. Declaring an interest as a vice-president of the British Humanist Association, I should say that although the individual contribution of right reverend Prelates is extremely valuable—perhaps because I often agree with them—I think it odd to give a right of legislature to a faith, even that most closely associated with our history. Other faiths of our land, even other branches of Christianity, do not entertain this concept. Indeed, they find it would compromise their independence, and I know members of the Church of England who feel the same. We can profit from a valued perspective without needing an anomalous constitutional status for it.

What I do want to defend is the ancient and honourable tradition of the right of people to choose their legislators, or a majority of them, to make decisions in their name. That is what I understand by political legitimacy. It is far from a modern idea. In Britain, it dates from the Anglo-Saxon Witan, as we have heard, and from the Norse people’s assemblies, which were overlaid by the feudal systems of privilege brought in by the Normans, whose descendants grudgingly conceded back the argument of democracy bit by bit over the centuries. I believe the first so-called parliament of the 13th century in fact grew out of an appointed body, the Curia Regis, chosen by the king, long after the Witan and the Thingvellir had been repatriated to the lands of the much maligned Vikings and their neighbours. Only the Tynwald of the Isle of Man remains here as a much attenuated reminder from979 AD. Incidentally, it was the first in the world to give women the vote. I will not strain the comparison. I simply suggest that the political tradition we share with the notably democratic Nordic societies should have more claim to our respect than the Norman panoply of hierarchy which took its place. It did not disappear, of course. When John Milton said,

he reflected exactly that tradition.

This powerful impulse, now underground, now overt, has always faltered at the gate of your Lordships’ House, chipping a bit at the edges, never refreshing the foundations, not for want of trying but because of obstruction from within Parliament. Of course your Lordships’ House does a very good job in many ways, though I did not find all the votes in my short eight years here enlightened, and nor have I heard many representative voices from our nations and regions. But although British institutions have a talent for practicality and work—to a degree—in spite of the system, we should not confuse the baby with the bathwater. The baby is our democratic values.

We need to look at the foundations. We could make a better job of making them deep and clear and straight. We have in prospect a structure which would make much better sense of our Parliament to those many outside it who are alienated from and mistrustful of politicians. They do not know what the House of Lords does. They do not understand how people are appointed, or even the difference between hereditary and appointed. Indeed, I am rather uneasy with the ambiguity of the title I bear. Apart from the fact that “baroness” has a confusingly ornate sound, resonant with puzzling genealogical associations—too much baggage, one might say—the conversational term of address, “lady”, could equally be applied to the wife of a knight; the wife of a hereditary baronet or baron, or for that matter a life one; or, I think, to the daughter of an earl, of all of which, of course, I am unworthy. I would prefer a clearer job description.

Finally, particularly now, without wishing to dwell on the current misfortunes of all parties, it is astonishing that it can still be held, in our secluded Chamber, that the appointment of political Peers is an acceptable principle. I do not think that that is the view outside; in fact, I know it is not. I am sorry to disagree with some of my peer group, whom I admire very much, but I am comforted by the fact that in the outside world, which is what our legislative activities are concerned with, very few share their view. YouGov’s highly professional and representative poll has 82 per cent supporting a fully or partly elected House and only 6 per cent in favour of a fully appointed one. I cannot help thinking that the fact that so many Members of your Lordships’ House are apparently immune to this reasoning and to these values may be more susceptible of sociological than logical explanation. Mark Twain’s remark comes unbidden to my mind: “I'm all for progress. It’s change I can't stand”.

6.35 pm

Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, our debates today and tomorrow are taking place ostensibly because the Government’s view is that they need to ensure that this House is,

as the White Paper puts it. The White Paper also asserts:

There could be many reasons for wishing to reform this House—manifesto pledges, certainly; awkward headlines, perhaps—but public clamour for increased legitimacy and authority in this House really cannot be prayed in aid.

By the standards of this House, I am a newcomer. It is 22 months since I ceased to be an elected Member in the other place. In those 22 months, much may have changed, but I can only say that in the 18 years when I was there I received no letter criticising the functioning of this House, no demand for improved legitimacy or increased authority and no suggestion that the House of Lords is unfit for purpose. Nor did I receive demands from my constituents that they should be given more opportunities to elect more politicians at an increased cost to them. Indeed, to say that they took the opposite view would be to understate the position.


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