Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Can I welcome our witness this morning, our first witness in the short inquiry which we are doing into the government's proposals of the reform of the House of Lords. We are delighted to have Lord Wakeham with us, who chaired the recent Royal Commission, we have a particular interest in your views and expertise in this matter. I understand that you do not want to make a preliminary statement. We will just fire off as we only have you for an hour. I have not read your speech in the Lord's yesterday yet. I think it would be helpful if you could very quickly tell the Committee in outline the reservations that you have about the government's proposals in relation to what you proposed in the Royal Commission.

  (Lord Wakeham) There were really three main reservations that I have. I welcomed a great deal of what the government wants to do but there are three main reservations. First, if there is to be, as I want, and the government seem to want, an appointed element in the House of Lords then in our view, the Appointments Commission, in my view, and it was very much in our report, that the Appointments Commission has to be wholly independent of the government. That is not to say, of course, that in practice the parties will have a very big influence as to who they nominate and who they get. I have tried to say to the government it would be rather smart of them not to take full responsibility for the Appointments Commission. I remember my days as the chief whip, when I was chief whip it was obviously quite convenient to say, "I will do my best for you, old boy, it is not for me, it is the Appointments Commission. I do not think it was very smart of them to have such tight control. I think it would be better administratively and produce a better result if the Appointments Commission was wholly independent. Part of the reason is that there are, in my view, two sorts of people in broad terms who may fall by the wayside under the way the government proposes. If they are saying they are the ones who are responsible, as will the Conservative Party and the Liberal party for the party nominees, the Appointments Commission is only concerned about the cross-benchers there is a whole bunch of people, in my view, who fall between the two who could make a very important contribution in the House of Lords. We can all think of political figures who have fallen out with their party leadership who would make a very eminent contribution in the House of Lords. They cannot pretend to be cross-benchers, they are active political people, just out of line with their own party. Are they going to be excluded unless their party leader thinks they should go into the House of Lords. I think that is bad. Secondly, there are a number of people whose primary reason for being in the House of Lords is they have great expertise in some field or another, they might be an eminent professor or a doctor or something of this sort who happened to have played in their ordinary life a part in politics, a minor part, chairman of their local branch, a political activist, are they to be called cross-benchers or are they to be excluded and cannot be chosen. I think the Government is making a big mistake by insisting on that very narrow regime of an Appointments Commission, that is not to say I do not expect in practice the government and the other parties to get whips of their people into the place, it would not work unless they did. That is the first reservation. The second reservation is about the elected element. I think one of the things that is more or less emerging is the consensus, is there going to be some appointed and some elected, that was a big debate as to what the proportion should be. Our view about the elected is that we have to be extremely careful about the sort of people that we get elected because what we do not want are people, who when elected would use the House of Lords as a staging post to get to where the real action is. Anybody who wants real action in politics wants to get in the House of Commons, that is where the big jobs, that is where the big opportunities in service are, whichever way you would like to phrase it. What we think would be disastrous for the House of Lords is for it to be a staging post for ambitious politicians who have not quite made the grade for Westminster. I can take you back to when I was leader of your House over the original European Members of Parliament, when it was thought that a good many of them were only European Members of Parliament because they were trying to get to Westminster. They were in the business or it was thought they were in the business of undermining Westminster Members of Parliament in all sorts of ways, they had big cash grants, all sorts of things and there was a lot of tension. At one time I was put forward a proposal that Members of the European Parliament should be able to use their Strasbourg pass in order get into Westminster and there was a very, very strong back-bench view in the House of Commons which said, "this is disgraceful, let the fellows stand out in the rain like the public and wait their turn". It would be very bad to produce a House of Lords which was full of people who all they wanted to do was to get to the House of Commons. We put various safeguards into it, one, we wanted a long term. We said 15 years. That is one of the reasons. There are two reasons for that, one was it made them as near as possible to the appointed members in terms of time, so they were appointed for 15 years or elected for 15 years. Secondly, we said that there must be a time, a further 10 years, after they leave the House of Lords before they can get to the House of Commons, that is another inhibition. The third one is open lists, we felt it was important there should be an open list, not a closed list. It was all designed to do that. That was our second reservation. We recognise that there has to be an elective element, there can be a debate as to what size it can be and in that debate. I have to say, to draw a distinction between an elected list from a closed list on a PR basis and an appointment by the Appointments Commission you need to be a fine political scientist to work out what in practice is going to be the difference between the guys who get there on the wish list or another. We are in favour of an open list which we think would be a better form of election than a closed list. That is the second reservation. The third reservation was that we felt that the government should have taken up our points in the areas of protecting the constitution, in a nutshell no power to amend the Parliament Act within a Parliament, which leads to if you are going to have a major change in the constitution at least the electorate should have a chance of expressing a view between one and the other. Those are the three reservations.

  2. I am very grateful for those, not least because they come with shrewd ex chief whip credentials. I like the idea that these chaps that you do not really want to get on, and you say, "it is not up to us but we will put your name forward".
  (Lord Wakeham) It is the real world, I promise you.

  3. This is the world we live in. Can I ask one or two questions about what you said, on the Appointments Commission, does that mean that parties will not necessarily get their people because the Appointments Commission, on your view, should have the ability to appoint party nominees who were not, in fact, the nominees of the parties?
  (Lord Wakeham) Yes. My view is I am not obsessed, as some people are, about total numbers. I think you can fiddle about with the numbers on the margin and I do not think it matters too much as long as the proportions are right. One can conceive of a situation if there is a statutory basis for the number and the party leader puts forward somebody, some very distinguished person who most people think should be there and is not there the Appointments Commission may have to do a deal with the other parties and put another one on to achieve that and to keep everyone happy. Yes, on the margin there will be one or two people who might be a Conservative supporter or a Labour supporter, or any other party for that matter, who would not be the party nominee. You would still have to play to keep the balance right, I think on the margins it would not be too difficult.

  4. I think it would be possible for somebody of the kind you describe who would not be sound enough to be on the party's list nominees to be able to apply directly to the Commission and say, "I am actually a party person, I do not want to go on their list but I want to be a party nominee".
  (Lord Wakeham) Absolutely. Also I would expect the Appointments Commission to be proactive and to recognise that X is retiring from a distinguished career in the House of Commons that has not necessarily followed conventional lines. I think public life is better if they have a place to express their views and continue to give their advice. I do not think a party leader who does not like them should have the power to keep them out of the House. That is essentially what I am looking at. It will be marginal.

  5. I thought it was interesting what you said about election that there seems to be a consensus now that there is some kind of balance between election and appointment in the territory we are all in. What I would like to know, you obviously had this discussion at great length inside the Commission and did not come to one view, you reached that with a spread, I think, including 12 per cent and 35 per cent of elections, which would suggest that it is not easy to come to a view on this. What I am not clear about on this is why on the logic of your argument in the Commission you needed an election at all because although the argument goes it is to represent the nations and the regions surely an Appointments Commission could appoint people from the nations and regions too. Why throw in the electoral element at all and why did you have so much difficulty coming up with the percentage.
  (Lord Wakeham) First of all, I have publicly stated since the report that I do not mind which of the percentages we put in our report we have as long as the basis on which they are elected is the type of election we want. I would object to any if they were on five year renewable terms because I think they would disrupt the place in a way that would make it hardly worth having. I would not mind if the percentage was slightly from what we proposed, and let me tell you why. I started with a Commission some of whom were utterly opposed to any elected members and some of whom wanted it wholly elected. We reached an united view. The interesting thing was nothing in the report at all but the dialogue that went on that created the basis on which we would achieve agreement. I think the first breakthrough was a realisation by those who were in favour of a wholly elected House. The reality was that you would not attract into it the sort of people who would be able to make the sort of contribution that the country would need from a revising chamber. First of all you would say that the brightest and the best would probably still seek to get to the House of Commons, the second 11 might go the regional and national Parliaments and the third 11 might go to Europe and we would end up with an elected bunch of guys in the House of Lords who were the fourth 11, and who is going to take any notice of them? What good are they to anybody? That was one way of looking at it. The second way was if you are going to want the House of Lords to make a real detailed and useful contribution which is an add on to what the House of Commons does you have to attract in, for example, the finest lawyers on human rights who would not possibly give up a career as a lawyer to go to the House of Commons but would go to the House of Lords, perhaps, where they could really make a contribution. Across the board it is vital that the House of Lords is a part-time House and not a full-time House where you could get that sort of expertise. That was the reason. Why did we recognise an elected element? From my point of view I went from in the discussions from a wholly appointed, which is where I started, to saying, the next thing to do is to have a series of Appointments Commissions round the nation so that the Scots could produce their own, Northern Ireland could produce their own and the Welsh could produce their own. I was told, not in evidence but outside by some very distinguished people that I must be joking to think it would be possible to have a regional Appointments Commissions that would have the weight and the standing that was necessary to send people to the House of Lords. They would inevitably get caught up in politics. I took the view, this is me, not what is in report, it would not be possible to get the right sort of credibility for regional and national representatives in a House if they were appointed by a Central London Appointments Commission and thus I came to the conclusion that let us use the people as the Appointments Commission, let them choose but let the people who get there not be elected in the sense that they were accountable to the electorate in the traditional sense, that is the job of the House of Commons. There is no reason why people who are going to do a similar job as appointed members should not be appointed by the people in their regions. That is basis that I came to conclusion. Others will have had a different way of getting there, it was that recognition that your regional representatives would not have been effectively appointed by one central body in London. That is how it works.

  6. Finally on that, having had this revelation of let the people be the Appointments Commission, if people took that further and said, let there at least be a majority of people acting as an Appointments Commission so we will have a majority of the House elected would that be consistent with what you have argued in the Commission or undercut it?
  (Lord Wakeham) I think it would be inconsistent in the sense that we took the view that one of the values of the Appointments Commission was seeking out and finding particular expertise that we felt the House of Lords needed which was the sort of expertise which was not available in the House of Commons. There is absolutely no point in replicating in the House of Lords, it is just a waste of time if we are going to be the same as the House of Commons. You have to produce something different that has a different perspective. We, by and large think, definitely think, you would not get that by a form of election but by appointment. The system for the regions and the nations we thought was unique for regions and the nations whereas we think the Appointments Commissioner is the best way of finding that sort of expertise which we think would be hard to persuade to go there without some proactive effort out by an Appointments Commission

  Chairman: I am sure colleagues will want to explore these points with you.

Mr Prentice

  7. Lord Wakeham, I am interested in the government's response to your recommendations. The Lord Chancellor yesterday in opening the debate in the Lord said, "We have not followed every detail but we believe our basic approach to be the Commission's". What do you say to that?
  (Lord Wakeham) I said in the debate that I thought that some of the things that he said were good and some were bad. I do not want to repeat myself. Certainly the fact that he wants it substantially appointed, the government want it substantially appointed, is, in my view, right. The role and functions of the House of Lords are very similar to the way that we reported. It is the distortion of the method of appointments were recommended and the distortion of the position of elected members that are my principle concerns. In other words, if I can put it another way, which I think is helpful, in the House of Lords there are not too many people in favour of an elected house, they want an appointed house, down here you might well say the opposite is true, there is a very significant number of people who would like an elected house. I think the government has in its way fallen into the trap of presenting the case for each, both of which there is a case for, in the worst possible light. There is a case for appointed members, there is a case for elected members. It seems to me the Government has made a mistake of presenting both of them in their least attractive light.

  8. I understand that. What I am trying to get at is the government is saying it is following the Wakeham proposals and the Daily Mail quotes you today as saying, "If the government proposals go through it could fatally undermine the plan".
  (Lord Wakeham) Sure.

  9. That is the position, is it not, we are talking about the government taking a different line in crucially important areas than the Royal Commission?
  (Lord Wakeham) Sure. If I may say so, your election manifesto took a different line from what the government has taken as well, but that is a matter for you and not for me.

  10. In the Commission's Report you said on 7th March 2000 you cautioned against cherry picking, you said "Our recommendations are coherent and interrelated." Do you stand by that?
  (Lord Wakeham) Yes, I standby that. I think one has to recognise—

  11. There is a qualification coming.
  (Lord Wakeham) No. We are all politicians and the most important thing I have always believed is that this is a compromise and I have been, right from the beginning, trying to persuade as many people to accept a few things they do not really want to in order to get the things they do want.

  12. I am interested in this question of coherence and whether the Royal Commission came forward with coherent proposals. Do you maintain that it was coherent?
  (Lord Wakeham) Yes, we do, we definitely do. We came to the conclusion that partly appointed and partly elected was the right way forward and that would get the best balance of people to do the job.

  13. What about religious representation? The government says in its response that the Royal Commission's proposals on religious representations were unworkable.
  (Lord Wakeham) Far be it from me to say the government are not entitled to their view, they are entitled to their view.

  14. I am interested in your view.
  (Lord Wakeham) My view is in the Report and I am disappointed they have not taken that view up. You could argue, this is relevant to this—

  15. Is this on the religious representation point, because I want to stick with that?
  (Lord Wakeham) Yes. You could argue that if you were starting from absolute scratch to find a second chamber with nothing on the table at all that it is not necessarily clear you will get a consensus for putting the established church in as one place. We start where we are. I actually want to reform the place and make progress. We start where we are and in my view what we proposed was a coherent way forward.

  16. How much time did you spend in the Commission considering the question of religious representation in the upper House?
  (Lord Wakeham) I do not think I can put a number on it, quite a lot. We had quite a lot of evidence from the established church, from those who were totally opposed to it, from leaders of free churches, from Jewish faiths, quite a lot. We had a very distinguished Bishop on our Commission—

  17. Bishop Harris
  (Lord Wakeham)—who wrote for our education—I do not know whether it was put in the evidence or not—a very substantial paper so we could attack the problem.

  18. I want to finish on this point, you have read the House of Lords supporting documents, where the government actually sets out the reasoning which leads it to the conclusion that the Royal Commission's proposals are unworkable.
  (Lord Wakeham) Which page is that on?

  19. This is page 62. If you were to tell the Committee that you had read it, you disagreed with it and you stick to your position that the Commission's proposals were workable then we can end it there.
  (Lord Wakeham) I have not read it, so that is very simple. As far as that is concerned I have seen nothing which makes me change my view.

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