Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. You then went on to say that the whipping system in the House of Lords is quite gentle. If you are going to elect that amount of people, the whipping system would have to change, would it not because they would be party political even on an open list, or whatever system we use, and you therefore would have to change the whipping system?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) If I could go back for a moment to the absolute key difference which is that there is not an overall majority of any one party in the upper House, the second chamber—to answer the point that was made by Mr Brennan, and we increasingly call it the second chamber. If there is no overall majority, the outcome depends crucially on any two parties out of three plus the cross-benchers who tend to be quite split and they vote roughly in the same order as the parties do, so you cannot see them as a block. You do find therefore that the argument on the substance of the issue becomes really quite key. If there were heavy whipping in the House of Lords, the almost immediate reaction is to push the other two parties together because the resentment about whipping if it is perceived to be for a cause that is not broadly accepted (and, frankly, we saw this over the countering terrorism legislation) becomes much greater.

  101. I do not disagree with that, but let us take the European elections in the South West where we have a UKIP member, let us say other parties come up and you have blocks coming up through whatever list system of another party, it could be the NSP or any party. Are you therefore not going to create that by having blocks all over the Lords sitting on those red benches which actually are putting the major parties into a position where they are going to have to whip?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Frankly, I do not see it. The suggestion is that there would be a five per cent bar in the same way that there is in Germany. In other words, unless you could carry five per cent of the electorate you would not be entitled to form a party, so that would rule out the most extreme, small parties.

  102. You say that but the turn-out is so bad in elections in this country, and elections for the House of Lords I think will do even worse, how are you going to get the bandwagon going except through party political organisations? Are you not going to create that problem because it is so low that for a party to get five per cent you could achieve it on a very low turn-out? I accept that it is hypothetical but it is possible.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) The analogy that springs to my mind, Mr Liddell-Grainger, is probably with the European elections which have a pretty low turn-out and although there was a brief appearance by the Greens apart from that we have not seen fragmentary parties suddenly finding themselves represented as European members. I do not really see this as a very great danger. I also think that the extent to which a fragmentary party could make a difference to the outcome, given that you have got two large parties and one medium-sized party in the House of Lords and no overall majority, it is very hard to see how that would make enough difference because basically at the moment the outcome depends upon which two parties see eye to eye as compared to the third, and that pretty well determines the outcome. It is much less important, therefore, to whip every last person in line because the majorities are fairly substantial once you get two out of three parties agreeing on something.

  103. Then when you have your changeover period, and you are talking about every five years or ten years, whatever the election will be, is that not therefore going potentially to lead to conflict?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) On our suggestion, which I mentioned to Mr Brennan, we would probably have two or a maximum of three tranches of newly elected members coming in but there would be no further changes beyond that, so the first group would probably be in 2004, which is what Lord Wakeham suggests, and it is unlikely you will have the emergence of many new parties by then. The second tranche would be in 2009, if one had a majority of elected members, so the whole thing would be in place relatively soon, within nine or ten years. If the House remained very large, that is to say no way was found of encouraging life Peers to leave the House at a faster rate than natural attrition which, as I said, is about 18 a year, then you would, in our view, have to have a third tranche, but we would not want to see that because we do not want to see a very large second chamber.
  (Sir George Young) Also by the nature of whipping in the upper House, the terms of trade are slightly different because you are not standing for re-election and so therefore the sanctions are virtually minimal.

  104. You would be under the Government's proposals?
  (Sir George Young) Not under Wakeham's but possibly under the Government's.

  105. I am talking about the Government's. You would actually be up for election which would mean that whipping —
  (Sir George Young) Which is why I am against those particular proposals.

  106. I am talking about the Government proposals at the moment and I think you have answered. Can I come on to one last thing, the power of veto on the House of Commons. How do both of you see the power of veto on the legislation that is going to the second chamber?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) As you know, there is hardly a power of veto. There are only two areas where there is a power of veto and one I have mentioned already which is the parliamentary term which I think we would probably agree to. The second is the hardly ever used veto of secondary legislation and the point about that hardly ever used veto is I think it has only been used once in recent years which was to insist that the Greater London Authority should have the same electoral leaflets going out to electors and have the money for that as any other democratic local authority. There was a row about that and we voted down a proposal which would have prevented that money being used. That veto is really only useful in the sense of drawing a line and it is a very rarely drawn line. As long as the House of Lords broadly accepts some version of the Salisbury Convention regarding anything that appears in a manifesto, I do not think that the Government has any serious worries. There is not a veto, there is only a delaying power.

  107. I think "delaying" is the better word.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) The delay is very short now and it is a maximum of a year.

  108. Do you think that that is right the way it is.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) I do broadly because I think the great usefulness of the House of Lords is that it can get the Government to think again, largely because the Government is concerned about its legislative programme. We are willing in our party to consider, for example, something which Robin Cook has suggested which is an idea of some carry over provided that the Bill has gone through pre-legislative scrutiny and provided that the parties can agree about that. There is every reason for being more efficient in this area but carry over is a very significant instrument for the Opposition parties and I do not think they should be asked to give that up unless there has been a proper approach to the legislation in advance and agreement that this faster method should be used. It would certainly help clear a lot of the backlog.

  109. What is your view, Sir George?
  (Sir George Young) I would leave the powers virtually as they are.


  110. One point comes out of part of Ian's questioning. Shirley Williams in particular, you want a much smaller House?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Yes.

  111. If you have only, as you are suggesting, 15 or 20 per cent appointed in that much smaller House and yet somehow we still want this to be some kind of house of experts, we are talking only about maybe 50 or 60 such people in that smaller House.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Slightly more.

  112. Is there not a real problem there?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) I think realistically one cannot get much below 400, so you are looking at something of the order of 80 and that, if they attend pretty regularly, is not an unreasonable sort of figure because you have also got as well the experts, do not forget, and we keep calling them experts but "independent members" is a better way of describing them, and you have also got, significantly, the fact that in the House of Lords there should be some movement towards trying to suggest that for the regions some of the people that are put on the lists are people who would deliver to the House of Lords their own expertise and experience and would not necessarily be, as George was saying, people primarily seeking re-election. It is the sort of thing that people will do when they have experience and they want to contribute to legislation but they do not wish to make a permanent career in politics.

Mr Wright

  113. Everything you talk about seems to be hinged around the present set-up and we have to look after the life Peers and all the other lords in there. Why do we not just abolish the House of Lords and start from scratch?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) Because the executive is too powerful in this country. If you abolished the House of Lords and had a very heavily whipped Commons, what you are going to get is a situation where even when the executive steps over those intangible lines that lie between a dictatorship and a democracy, there would not, in my view, be adequate power to stop that. It would require extraordinary courage by a great many MPs putting their careers and families' incomes at risk, and the evidence is pretty clear that that does not happen in any country anywhere.

  114. We would have the protection of elections every four or five years.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) We might not because do not forget that that in itself rests on the ability of the House of Lords to veto any extension. There have been in the past one or two attempts to try to extend the term of parliament and some of them very justified like the 1935-45 Parliament but, knowing the House of Lords had that power of veto, the Government of the day had to very carefully put together an all-party agreement to get an agreement that no election should be held in 1939-40, and that was very important because it meant, of course, that it brought the other parties into coalition, which was exactly right in a situation where you were not going to have elections. It would put an awful lot of our unwritten constitution at risk to try to abolish the second House.

  115. You said yesterday in your speech that at the end of the day there will have to be compromises and that there are going to be bad compromises and good compromises. What would be a bad compromise for you? Less than 50 per cent elected, and a good compromise over 50 per cent?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) An acceptable compromise. I think there should be a majority.
  (Sir George Young) Would not the thing to do when we debate it be to have an amendment that starts off at 100 per cent elected and then works downwards until you get a majority in our House, and that is the point at which you strike the balance?

  Mr Prentice: A cunning plan!

Mr Wright

  116. One of the reasons we are carrying out this inquiry is to come up with a solution where all of us around this table can agree a consensus. Whether that happens remains to be seen but hopefully at the end of the day we will be able to come up with something which will be helpful to the process. I tend to agree that if there is no abolition of the House of Lords there has to be a democratically accountable second chamber. I do not subscribe to the view, as Lord Wakeham has said, that he is looking after the integrity of certainly what he would perceive as the first chamber, and the electoral integrity over what we would have to subscribe to. I believe that that is an argument put forward by the people who want to have the status quo. Would that be your view?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) No, it would not be my view, Mr Wright, but what I would reiterate is at the moment the job of scrutiny is not being adequately done between our two chambers in this Parliament. One obvious example is the huge amount of European legislation which is not really adequately scrutinised, and we all know it, and the vast amount of secondary legislation, some of which is completely unscrutinised. No elected person or appointed person in the other place actually looks at an awful lot of it at all. That worries me because we are not carrying out our obligations to our citizens who elected us, or in my case once elected us, to ensure that the laws they are supposed to abide by are looked at by the people who are elected or, if not by the people elected, at least by somebody else who then returns it to the elected House, which we do, to consider. I think there has to be a far lower level of legislation than we have at the present time in this country. Frankly, it would be simply irresponsible to get rid of the chamber which can do a lot this work. To give you an example of the Counter Terrorism Bill, at the end of the day the Bill that came out was much more aware of the inroads on civil liberties and where they were not necessary for the crusade against terrorism as distinct from when the Bill started, and I believe in that case the upper House, the second chamber, did a reasonable job which enabled the Commons to think again about some aspects of this and at the end of the day we got a better Bill.

Mr Lyons

  117. The Scottish Parliament, for instance, scrutinises their own legislation. Is there any reason why the House of Commons should not do their own scrutiny?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) At the moment they clearly do not take full advantage of the opportunity they have to scrutinise because there are only 24 hours in the day. I am struck, having been an MP for nearly 20 years, at the extraordinary increase in the amount of work that you ladies and gentlemen do on constituency questions. When I was in the House of Commons I got about 300 letters a week, which was among the highest. I suspect that a lot of you get 300 letters a week even if it is not at the high end of the spectrum so you are far more pushed than we were. The consequence of that (and also the rise in the use of select committee which I think is excellent) is that there simply is not time in the Commons any more to scrutinise in detail. You know and I know that there have been significant Bills which have been guillotined with sometimes whole groups of clauses never debated at all in this House and we come to them completely clean, nobody has discussed them or amended them or anything and we then have to look at them. So unless the Commons changes its pattern of work, I cannot see any rapid way of change.

  118. That is a question of reorganisation rather than principle.
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) I will pass that on to George because he knows more about the Scottish Parliament than I do.
  (Sir George Young) That is very handsome recognition. I think the answer is we could scrutinise that legislation if we had less of it but because we have so much we deal with it rather quickly and the upper House adds value to that process. If you removed the upper House and wanted the same quality of legislation, you would have to reduce it very dramatically in quantity. I am not sure that would be acceptable to the Government. My party would be delighted if the Labour Party proposed the abolition of the second chamber because they would see it as further evidence of all sorts of tendencies, but the truth is that the second chamber does add value to the democratic process and I do not think it is seriously proposed by any major party that it should be removed.

Annette Brooke

  119. To start with a simple question really, do you think the whole agenda of reform of the House of Lords should take on board the need to reconnect the British public with the democratic processes?
  (Baroness Williams of Crosby) I missed the second part.

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