Examination of Witnesses (Questions 68
THURSDAY 10 JANUARY 2002
68. Could I move the Committee on to the second
half of our proceedings and welcome our two new witnesses in the
shape of Sir George Young, a distinguished Member of this House,
and Lady Williams, who is a distinguished Member of the other
House having been a distinguished Member of this House. We wanted
very much to hear from both of you on the whole question of the
House of Lords reform issue. I do not know if either of you would
like to say anything by way of introduction or whether you would
just like us to fire on.
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) If I could
have just five minutes.
69. We could not do five minutes but we could
do two or three minutes.
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) In that case you had
better hold on to your sleds. Our position is straight forward
in that it makes no sense to try to reform the House of Lords
without trying to reform Parliament as a whole. We are extremely
troubled by the fact that there have been virtually no meetings
between the two Houses or the Leaders of parties of the two Houses
about an issue which we regard as overriding. The reason we regard
it as overriding is because we think that the accountability of
the executive of any party to Parliament is now extremely weak.
It should be strengthened and it can only be strengthened if the
House of Commons and the House of Lords are seen together with
the House of Lords, of course, understanding its role to be subordinate
but complementary to the House of Commons. We do not know how
to be complementary unless we have a chance to discuss with the
House of Commons in a formal structure. Secondly, we think this
comes within the envelope of a longer constitutional settlement.
We think the United Kingdom is moving, little by little, patch
by patch, towards a constitutional settlement, the embodiment
of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law, the
devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, the beginning of a
regional assembly structure, all of those suggest that we are
in fact on the way to some kind of a new constitutional settlement
but as a country we do not address it. We have not seriously thought
about how to put it together so everything that we are going to
say is going to be in that particular context. Number three, we
think the House of Lords is primarily a revising scrutiny chamber.
We think the responsibility of the Commons in respect of constituency
responsibilities and also of the growing power which we very much
welcome of Select Committees means that MPs have less and less
time to go through the grinding job of scrutinising line by line
and in some cases simply do not have the opportunity to do it,
as to with the Counter Terrorism Bill of last month. For all these
reasons we think it is crucial that most major Bills should go
through pre-legislative scrutiny. They should then be considered
very carefully with committees not taking votes but at report
stage which is long enough after the committee stage to be considered
in terms of major amendments. On secondary legislation, we would
like to see a right to amend onlywhich does not exist at
the momentthose Statutory Instruments which are defined
by the proposed new Statutory Instruments Committee, which is
in the Government's White Paper as being of such importance they
should come before one House or the other. If they see it as that
important it ought to be possible to amend such Statutory Instruments.
I will not go on and on. The final point I will make is about
composition. As you probably know, my party and I are committed
to the idea of a substantial majority, by which we mean virtually
75 to 80 per cent of all appointments being abolished, specifically
political appointments, and replaced by a system of election linked
to the regions. We would see, therefore, probably a balance of,
say, 15 to 20 per cent, we are not dogmatic on the exact number,
of independents appointed by the Appointments Commission to serve
as in some ways a balanced wheel for the House of Lords. I will
be happy to say more about any of that.
70. Thank you very much. Sir George?
(Sir George Young) Just two footnotes. I was in the
Upper House when Lady Williams made her speech and she made the
point about reform of the House of Lords being part of a wider
reformed Parliament. It received support from a lot of people,
many of whom want nothing to happen at all and see linking the
House of Lords reform to broader reform as a reason for staying
with the status quo. So I just put a note of caution against seeking
to link House of Lords reform with the broader reform of this
House or Parliament as a whole. The other point, having stood
at the back of the Upper House and then looked through Hansard,
I was struck by the strength of feeling against election and the
number of Peers who put that point of view at a time when in our
House opinion is moving the other way. I just came away rather
alarmed that there was going to be a problem not just within the
parties, which we know about, but actually between the two Houses.
I think there needs to be some serious thought applied as to how
we are going to manage the process and avoid a battle between
the two Houses on its composition ending in deadlock.
71. I think they are extremely interesting opening
gambits. If I could start. Could I ask you both broadly on this
question of power, power rather than powers perhaps. What I mean
by that is the Royal Commission and the Government's position
seems to be that nothing must happen that alters existing relationships
in terms of the pre-eminence of the House of Commons. I wonder
if that does not rather duck a fundamental issue which is that
either we think there need to be more effective checks on what
goes on in the Commons or there does not. If there does, do we
think the Lords ought to be part of those checks, in which case
we clearly want a Lords which is even more powerful than it is
now. I think this is something we have to get hold of right at
the outset, whether that is what we are doing. This is very much
part of, Lady Williams, your argument about the broader constitutional
position here. What would be your view on that?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) Chairman, let me be
blunt. I think personally that the way in which the White Paper
continually addresses the relationship between the two Houses
is frankly a way of escaping the much more important question
which is the relationship of the two Houses to the Executive.
I think it is simply, if I may say so, something of an attempt
to try to draw attention away from that crucial issue because
executives of any colourI do not care whether they are
blue, yellow or redalways have the characteristic of not
wishing to see a legislature that is effective in terms of their
accountability. It is just the nature of Government to be like
that. It is a nuisance to ministers to actually be accountable
to Parliament, and having been a minister for many years I speak
of what I know. So I believe that it is absolutely crucial to
strengthen the legislature and I think the legislature has got
to see itself as having a common interest in doing this and therefore
I regard that whole part of the White Paper as essentially a way
of avoiding what to me is the overarching issue. With regard to
what you say about power and powers I think, therefore, that there
is a great deal to be said for the two Houses discussing how best
to scrutinise and question Bills as they come through. I mentioned
pre-legislative scrutiny and I think that could well happen in
either House or both Houses or even the two Houses together, very
radical, why not? The other point I want to make strongly is that
in my view there is a whole area of power or, if you like, functions
of scrutiny and accountability which is hardly touched upon in
the United Kingdom, and that of course is the area of matters
which fall under the Royal Prerogative. There is no argument for
so much falling under the Royal Prerogative. If I can give the
Committee just two quick examples. Firstly, neither of our Houses
is actually asked to debate or discuss Treaties before they are
signed under the Royal Prerogative by the Executive yet many of
our younger constituents are more interested in the operations
of the World Trade Organisation than they are in some remote issue
about common hold and leasehold and they do not have the opportunity
to see that passing through Parliament, it just does not pass
through Parliament. A great many pieces of legislation about,
for example, weapons of mass destruction are embodied in protocols
and treaties, we do not discuss them, except under the heading
of foreign affairs debates. The final big area of Royal Prerogative
is the whole area of devolved power to Government agencies and
we all know you do not get replies from Government agencies, you
get replies from the Minister to "please go to the Strategic
Rail Authority" and the Strategic Rail Authority quite often
says "Well, it is not our business to answer your questions".
It is a huge evasion of accountability. So I think the Royal Prerogative
area should be brought under the power of the two Houses and the
two Houses should discuss how best to deliver this power. I would
prefer to see a Joint Committee on treaties than a Lords Committee
on treaties but I would much rather see a Lords Committee on treaties
than no Committee on treaties.
72. Sir George?
(Sir George Young) I would draw a distinction between
nominal powers and effective powers. I think the nominal powers
are broadly right and should stay the same. I think the effective
power of the second chamber would be greater if it had more authority,
more legitimacy, more validity. I think the Government would then
find it more difficult to disregard it in the way that it does
at the moment and I think that moves on to an issue you may want
to tackle later, how you compose it. I agree with Lady Williams
that the Government seek to portray this as a two dimensional
contest, if one body loses power the other one must gain power.
Actually it is a multi-dimensional contest and the main contest
is between Parliament and the Executive and the Lords and the
Commons are partners not rivals in that. That is actually the
dimension which matters most. The final point is I am amazed at
the lack of liaison between the two Houses. There are small party
groups, single issue groups which are quite effective, and some
party links; how the crossbenchers in the Upper House link with
our House, I am not quite sure. We have, however, a very effective
Liaison Committee in our House, I am not quite sure what the House
of Lords has but if they have a Liaison Committee perhaps those
two Liaison Committees ought to get in touch with each other,
see if there is a common agenda that they could begin to work
through to increase the effectiveness of the two chambers collectively.
73. When I listened to Lady Williams and listened
to the way in which you want to give more jobs to the Lords, because
these are jobs that are not being done in our constitution, and
you make a very strong case for the Lords to be the place where
they might be done, the further down that road that you go, do
you not quickly run up against what is fundamental to the Royal
Commission's position and the Government's position that this
must be essentially a part-time institution?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) Yes, you do run up against
that. Incidentally, I overheard the last question that you put
to Lord Wakeham. I do not see that problem to be honest with you.
If the Committee likes we will give it a detailed actuarial proposal
that we are putting forward as to how one can bring the House
of Lords down to about 350 to 400 without actually having to bring
in drastic measures to get rid of the existing Peers. We think
it can be done by a mixture of actuarial tables and possibly a
resettlement round which would save the Government money because
it would save it the allowances it would otherwise have to pay.
We have shown all that and we can happily put it to your Committee.
What we believe, however, is that as you move towards a House
of 350 to 400, given that we are now working I think longer than
any other legislature in Europe, except yourselves, we have got
to face the fact that we are probably going to have something
of more full-time Members of the House, the elected Members are
likely to be full-time, and that means, I think, one will have
to consider moving away from allowances, which incidentally are
wide open to misuse, in the direction of probably a fairly modest
salary, along the lines of the salaries paid to, for example,
the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament.
74. Just to get a run in a different direction.
I know you have told us, Lady Williams, you are in favour of an
overwhelmingly elected second chamber and my understanding is,
Sir George, that you are in that sort of territory too. Therefore,
I put to both of you as people who are in a broad position the
argument that we have heard strongly this morning from Lord Wakeham,
it is a powerful argument, that if we do that we shall lose all
kinds of people of expertise and independents who will not come
through either any kind of party list system and that all the
kinds of attributes that we saw during the Terrorism Bill, for
example, will be gone to the House because these people will not
come through that route. We shall finish up with a clone of the
House of Commons, as Lord Wakeham said controlled by the Whips,
and we shall be worse off rather than better off.
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) It is a serious argument.
I think in the end this Committee is going to have to choose because
on the other side, of course, there is by the electorate a growing
feeling that if you have no substantial elected second chamber
it does not have the legitimacy or validity it should have. You
probably are well aware in this Committee of the opinion poll
findings that something like 71 per cent of the public want an
elected House, that 97 per cent believe that to have an overwhelmingly
appointed House is not acceptable and the media themselves, of
course, spend a great deal of time indicating that Tony's cronies
or IDS's, I do not know, are somehow a form of institutional corruption.
75. Sorry to interrupt. If you ask the question,
as ever it is a question, is it not, "Do you want a second
chamber formed in the image of the first chamber, do you want
a House of Lords like the House of Commons, controlled by the
Whips", what would the answer be?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) Chairman, I was about
to answer that. I just wanted to make the first point first, I
think, quite quickly, that it does not follow at all. First of
all, you want long terms. We believe that there should be a term
of at least ten years, renewable once. That gives people a great
deal of independence as they move towards the whole of the middle
of their term and onwards, Senators compared with Congressmen
are a very good example of that. Secondly, we think it should
be by a fixed term, linked to the European Parliament. Thirdly,
we think it should be by a form of PR which does not for a moment
accept the system of closed lists. So you would have to have STV
and an open list system, perfectly possible to do. Fourthly, we
think that there should be, as I have said, a 15 to 20 per cent
element of people appointed by the Appointments Commission because
of their expertise or because of, in some cases, ethnic background
because the PR system, like the first past the post system, has
a better chance. It may not throw up enough ethnic minority Members
of the House of Lords to be representative of the community as
a whole and we think that is extremely important.
(Sir George Young) My reply is a slightly different
one and that is that people behave differently in different chambers.
If you are elected to the House of Commons and you are facing
re-election and you are in a highly political environment, you
behave in one way. If you get translated to the Upper House you
behave in a different way, although you are the same person.
76. You mean you become decent and civilised.
(Sir George Young) I think Lord Wakeham and Lord Hurd
are good examples of that. Perhaps the most effective performer
in the Upper House in recent years, from my party, was John Mackie,
who started off in our House. So I do not accept the argument
that Lord Longford put two years ago which is that if you have
elected Members of the House of Lords you get the dregs. If you
look at the Conservative Party Front Bench in the Upper House,
they would all have been quite happy to have a gentle encounter
with the electorate as proposed by Lord Wakeham. I would have
one third appointed. I think there is value added to the Upper
House by having the scientists, the generals, the civil servants,
the doctors, the academics. If you have one third appointed and
two thirds elected, you avoid any one party dominating it. I think
that is the right balance, although I am open to persuasion. I
do not accept the argument that if you have a distinctive chamber
with distinctive functions, people who come from one Chamber will
behave exactly as they did in the first chamber in the second
one. I think history tells us the opposite. So I just do not accept
77. Nor the Lord Wakeham argument which says
it will be the fourth eleven, to use his phrase, they have failed
to become MPs, they have failed to become MEPs, they have failed
to become all kinds of things so they finish up in the House of
(Sir George Young) I do not accept that. I can see
it is an argument. We will only know when it actually happens.
There are not going to be very many of them for each party and
if you elect them every five years there will be even fewer so
I think there will be a lot of competition for what will be a
very prestigious job. I will be amazed if some very attractive,
very talented people did not come forward from all three main
parties to seek nomination and election to that post.
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) Can I just underline
the importance of no overall majority. To me the miracle of the
House of Lords compared with having been in the Commons for many
years is that if you do not know what the outcome is going to
be, and you really do not in lots of cases, you do actually have
to listen to the debate, it makes a lot of difference.
78. It would be a culture shock for all of us.
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) Yes.
79. There is not a whipping system in the House
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) Yes, but it is a very
gentle whipping system. What basically happens is they impose
a three line whip if they really care terribly about the issue
and roughly half the Members show up but it is rather more in
our party, to make it tougher for them. Generally speaking, quite
honestly, no it is not like the whipping system in the Commons
but there are some signs of it beginning to move in that direction