Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 123 - 139)




  123. I thank our two witnesses this afternoon for coming along and contributing to this rather intensive inquiry on proposals for reform of the second chamber. We are delighted to have Lord Lipsey, a very distinguished member of the Upper House with a good deal of knowledge of this place too, and Lord Norton, again a distinguished member of the Upper House, a distinguished political scientist and someone who chairs the Constitution Committee in the House of Lords. We look forward to sitting at your joint feet for a little while this afternoon. You would like to make a statement. Perhaps Lord Lipsey would start?

  (Lord Lipsey) Thank you, Chairman, and for inviting me again. I find my sessions with this committee are most entertaining and productive to the things I do in that strange world that I now inhabit. I am here as a representative of a rare species, one that can see some virtue in the Government's proposals on Lords' reform. I think I spotted one other non-ministerial supporter in the 80-odd Lords who spoke in our debate on the subject last week, though none in the Commons. As one who can see virtue, can I make three very brief points? First, though I can support most of what the Government is proposing, I cannot for the life of me understand why they have gone for the regional lists as a way of choosing the elected element. This is to invite the charge that they want a party-poodle second chamber. A much more appropriate system of election for the Lords, and I speak here as a member of the Jenkins Committee on the Electoral system, would be the single transferable vote which enables voters to split their vote between parties and individuals. This could be introduced in an appropriate number of constituencies based on the list of 80 suggested in the Jenkins Report. I set out in more detail notes on this in the memorandum that I have sent to the Committee. Secondly, I believe that far too much attention has been given to matters of membership and composition of the Lords and too little to matters of procedure. The aim, and I think we are agreed on this, is to create an effective essentially revising chamber. The Lords is not that now, not because of its composition but because of its antediluvian procedures. In particular, effective revision will not take place while committee stages are held on the floor of the House among a handful of interested peers whilst hundreds more lurk about the building waiting to vote on matters about which they neither know nor care when the bell goes and the whips instruct. Thirdly, in politics it is generally wise to recognise the dead duck when you see it on its back in parliament with its legs in the air. If the Government ploughs ahead with proposals based on its current proposals—and, as I say, I do see some virtue in those proposals—they are unlikely to get through Parliament, at least without doing terrible collateral damage to the rest of its legislative proposals. The Lords can inflict this, even if your House decides not to. Stage one of Lords reform required a bill of only half a dozen clauses, but is still took up 12 days in the House of Lords. We need consensus. The difficulty we have is that most MPs, from what I read, want more election, whilst most peers want less. My own solution would be to refer the matter to a joint committee of both houses, as the Government proposed in its 1997 general election but not its 2001 election manifesto, and for the Government to lift its objection—which I understood at the time—to such a joint committee discussing composition. In the meantime, since there is virtually complete consensus that heredity is not an appropriate way of choosing a legislative house, it would seem sensible to introduce a short bill which would provide the euthanasia for hereditary peerage.

  124. Thank you very much indeed. Let us pass immediately to Lord Norton.
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) May I also thank you for inviting me. I should stress I speak solely in a personal capacity and therefore the view I shall express is completely united. The only point I would make is to take the present second chamber as our starting point. I believe, if you look at what it does, it does add some value to the political process because it fulfils functions that are qualitatively distinctive to those of the first chamber and it performs them tolerably well, for several reasons. I frankly disagree with what Lord Lipsey has said. There are some problems with procedures which I suspect members of the Commons would empathise with, on what has been said, but in other areas the procedures are superior. That is just one of several reasons why it is able to do the job that it does. So it adds value. That is my starting point. Therefore, if you want to move from the present situation, you have got to demonstrate that the alternatives add value to the same extent or more so than the present second chamber. None of the alternatives on offer, as far as I can see, do that. The arguments, it strikes me, are built on shifting sands—shifting in the sense that they tend not to be consistent in terms of the justification, and sand in the sense that they tend to be lacking in depth. As you know, Mr Chairman, academics tend to proceed by way of research and then draw conclusions based on that research. Politics is very similar except that the research stage tends to be absent. I think you get that on Lords reform. Everybody is coming up with their conclusions, so people are throwing numbers into the equation and things like that, without standing back and researching the topic, and even thinking through what is the justification and how they would define the concepts that are being thrown around, most of which are contested. People seem to see it on the basis that they are a given, and they are not. So, I think if you are to move from the present situation, in which I see benefit, then you have got to demonstrate that the alternatives will deliver more benefits than the existing arrangements, and I do not think they do that. The White Paper certainly does not do that and I do not think any of the other alternatives do it either.

  125. Thank you very much. Of course what I omitted to say at the beginning was that one of you represents the Labour interest and we have the Conservative interest in the House of Lords. That is a rather interesting mission, and we have to work out which is which as we go along.
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I am drawn from the Conservative interest. You said "represents" and of course, as you know, there are different definitions of "representation". It depends which definition you are taking.

  126. Could I start things off like this, and perhaps start with Lord Lipsey? If I am right, you have been one of the few people in this whole debate who moved position at all, as I understand it. You were, on the whole, broadly supportive of the Government's position at one time and have now decided or accepted that some elective element is probably either right or going to happen.
  (Lord Lipsey) The Government proposals include an elective element, a 20 per cent elective element. I do not think the numbers issue is about that. The composition is a second order question, my view is that those who are elected, are really not experts in what should be an expert House.

  127. May I interrupt you? The reason I put it in the way that I did, and I am sorry if I did not put it quite right, is that people have been struggling getting submissions to us and almost everybody simply re-plays positions that they have taken over the years and there are not many signs of learning, thinking or movement going on. I was simply struck by the fact that, as I understood it, you had moved and I wanted merely to know why and the direction.
  (Lord Lipsey) If the Government's proposals had been met with universal acclaim, I would have been quite happy with most of them—I have drawn one exception that I do not much like—and that would have been fine. The process of constitutional change is not done in great leaps; it should not be done just at the whim of mighty men, even as mighty as Lord Irvine, for example. It really wants to be thought through and proceeded with in so far as it is possible on the basis of a consensus. The simple truth is that there is no consensus around the proposals the Government has put forward. I thought, when the Wakeham Committee put forward those proposals, that then would attract consensus, but that has not happened. I am not saying I am glad the duck is dead but I just do not see much point in proceeding as if it was still quacking.

  128. Let me stay with you for a second. The very interesting paper you have given us was all about the form of election and you have argued for the single transferrable vote form of election. This was something that was not recommended by the Royal Commission and certainly not by the Government. I wonder why you think it has to be an STV system. I wonder in particular what you think the difference in practice will be between a STV system and a genuine own party list system.
  (Lord Lipsey) I speak as somebody who thought STV was quite wrong in the Commons because if you have STV in the Commons, you would lose constituencies, which I think is its chief glory of the present system we have for the House of Commons. Indeed, it is the only reason the House of Commons retains credibility of voting at all, since they all love you as individual members, even if they do not like the institution to which you belong. The Lords is a very different place. For one thing, you are not looking for constituency representation. In fact, it would be a disaster to have constituency representation in the Lords because then you would get mere competition between Lords members and Commons members. Let us face it, what you would get is a load of Lords members who were competing with Commons constituency MPs in order to supplant sitting members at the first possible opportunity. There are some examples of that. For example in New Zealand, that was a disaster. What you want in the Lords is a much more lively representative group. Think about the list system; leave aside open versus closed, which is a narrow point. A list system forces the elector to cast all his votes for one party. I think there are many electors who might say, "Well, I would like four Conservatives but also I have got very strong green interests, so I would like to cast one of my votes for an excellent local green with whom I share many views". I can see no reason at all, apart from narrow party interest, why a voter in those circumstances in the Lords, with wide representation, should be prevented by the system from doing that and making for more plural representation of parties in the Lords. I, for one, would think that very welcome.

  129. Above all else, you are a political realist, which is why you moved in that direction, and you have told us about dead ducks and feet in the air and all that. What perplexes me about this is that in a situation where the parties, and certainly the governing party, are already anxious about election and are setting about extending it, if you offer them a system which gives them less control over that elective process because you insert STV, will that not make them even more anxious about this direction?
  (Lord Lipsey) I think there are two answers. First of all, they are proposing STV for Northern Ireland representatives. It is very curious to have two electoral systems in one body. I do not think I have ever come across that before. Secondly, the Government must choose. It can be a control freak, as you say, and want complete control over everybody, or it can respond to one thing on which everybody is absolutely unanimous: list systems are not acceptable for this particular body. If the Government wants to go on taking that view, I believe it will be defeated in the Lords on that proposition. I hope very much it might be defeated in the Commons. To be honest, I do not think either the Royal Commission or the Government has thought through this particular bit. Originally, to be fair, neither had I, being against STV in many elections, and it was only when I sat down hard and thought about an alternative that I realised there was an alternative. I do not despair of them doing the right thing for once.

  130. Let me turn briefly, before handing over to Lord Norton, to this. Obviously I cannot resist the question which says: you are the great Conservative constitution authority. You wrote the report on parliamentary reform for the Conservative party, but last year. As I understand it, and tell me if I am wrong, in the past you were someone in favour of essentially an appointed second chamber. Why has your constitutional wisdom been so comprehensively rejected by your party?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) You are asking the wrong person because you would have to ask the party if they are rejecting it. I stick by my views, in which I have been quite consistent. In your earlier question you were implying that there had not been much change in perceptions. There has been a lot.

  131. Let us put it round the other way. Coming from the direction which you do, give us your view on what you are finding in attitudes?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) What seems to be proposed is a largely elected second chamber. I cannot quite see what the benefit of that is. I have always argued that the present system, or rather the present relationship, present arrangements, of the chamber is very appropriate to our political processes. It delivers benefits and I think once you move in the direction of election, you start to deliver disbenefits to the political system. I have been quite consistent in that view. If it is a small element of election, I cannot see it is going to deliver much. If it is a small percentage, I think it is probably silly. A large percentage, with a majority of members elected, I think is potentially dangerous.

  132. Should not the fact that most of the evidence suggests that the people, if I can put it that way, think that most people in the second chamber ought to have the legitimacy that comes from election count on the constitution?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I would challenge that in two respects as well as then coming on to the terminology that is then employed. First of all, it depends on the question you are asked. You can say that you do think the second chamber should be elected. You are not going to get people saying "no" unless they get a chance perhaps to explain why. That is a natural instinct. I suspect, if you put the question another way, which is "would you like another tier of elected politicians?" you would probably get a slightly more negative response. It depends, I think, on how you put the question. If you look at some of the ICM poll questions from last December, when you got variations to different questions put, then you got your majority which reflects the point I have just made. The second point is that if people have an opinion, it is broad and it is not deep. The reason it is not deep is because there has been no real debate about the role of the second chamber in our political system. It is not a pubs and clubs issue. People do not get excited about it. There has been really no attempt by politicians much to actually go out and explain it and to engage in a real debate. The debate that has taken place has been at an elite level and, even then, I do not think it has been a well-grounded debate. I have to say that some politicians have demonstrated hidden depths of shallowness when it comes to actually discussing the issue. So I do not think it has been a well-grounded debate at all. I think that is an absolutely poor basis on which to change our constitutional arrangements, simply because people have been approached in the street without any real thought about the topic and have given any particular response. I do not think we are here necessarily to be cyphers simply for public opinion. At times we have got to give a lead if we disagree with what people are saying. I think we have got to go out and try and persuade them to our view. If we do not persuade them, then that is different, but I do not think we have reached that stage.

  133. Did you try to persuade them from this view?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I tried to persuade different audiences, so I shall keep trying to persuade those within my party and throughout the country. I am happy to address whatever audience I can to argue the case I do and, when I do, I find that people find it rather refreshing to discuss the issue and actually to think through what they mean by the terminology they are employing. What do they mean by democracy? You were talking about using terminology like "representative" and "legitimacy" and so on. What do you actually mean by these terms? Once people stand back and think about it, then actually look at what the second chamber has done—because this debate is largely taking place independent of what actually exists—I get the impression from most people I discuss it with that they are not that well informed about the present second chamber. It is a debate largely in the abstract. I think there is a case to be made for engaging in debate and letting people know. Once you do that, I think they welcome the debate and they do tend to change their minds.

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger

  134. Can I come back, Lord Lipsey, on the joint committee? What would you see the remit of the joint committee being?
  (Lord Lipsey) The basis for the original joint committee, as you know, was to examine the interrelations between the two Houses. I think that is an important task but I think we have to go wider than that. The truth is that, unusually in our system, all three political parties in both Houses, with the single exception of the Lib Dems in the House of Commons, are split on this issue. The most powerful speeches from the Lib Dems in the Lords vote were from Lord Jenkins who has been bit sniffy about elections and Lord Dahrendorf who attacked it head-on. The Conservatives are deeply split about it, as Lord Strathclyde admitted on his Newsnight interview; they are riven down the middle. Our side in the Lords is equally split such as Ivor Richard, the previous Leader of the House, and the vast majority of Labour peers who think the percentage of election is about right. You would be able to reflect that disagreement in the Commons, which I do not now offer guidance on. When you have got that degree of disagreement about a matter which profoundly affects the work in Parliament, it seems to me that the way forward is for Parliament to discuss it. It could take some time, I freely admit it, before a consensus emerges. You could, however, afford to take some time. It is amazing how quickly opinion in the Parliamentary Labour Party has changed on this particular subject. If it has taken 700 years for the Lords to get to where it has now and it takes another 12 months or so to get a consensus to the solution, that seems to me to be well worth the investment.

  135. Do you agree with that, Lord Norton?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I can see the case for a joint committee. If it met, I think there would be dangers in confining it solely to discussing the role of the second chamber. If you have a committee of the two houses, that would be an ideal place to start actually addressing the role of the Parliament.

  136. That is exactly the point I am coming on to. What is going to be the role of the second chamber, let us take it in 12 months and three years' time after we have had election of an unspecified amount of people? What is the pure role of the second chamber going to be?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) I think, in relation to the first, the first should be there to restrict government. It is the elected chamber. It should be an accountable chamber. I do not want to destroy that accountability by having a second elected chamber. Therefore, the second chamber should fulfil a role that is complementary to the first. If the first is not doing its job, that is not an argument for reforming the second chamber; it is an argument for making sure that the first does its job properly. If it is not doing its job properly, you are not going to get reform of the second chamber. I think it should be a complementary chamber. I think that it can fulfil certain core functions which the second chamber alone can do; that is take a second look at legislation, as the first cannot do it itself; that is the core on which the Lords I think does really rather well. I would want to strengthen that. There is a wider scrutinising role as well, facilitated by the composition and there is a number of other complementary roles to that, drawing upon the particular nature that you have in the second chamber under present arrangements to actually deliver. As far as I see a problem with Parliament, it actually rests with the first chamber. I do not see the logic of the argument that the House of Commons is doing a poor job; the House of Lords is doing a rather good job; reform the House of Lords. I think one has to start with the first chamber and get that right and then address the second chamber.

  137. What about you, Lord Lipsey? I am asking you to crystal-ball gaze.
  (Lord Lipsey) The trouble is that I would not want this joint committee to end up discussing absolutely the future of the universe. As a parallel, if we have a House of Commons elected on a fair electoral system, less dominated by the whips, willing to hold the executive properly to account and properly to source instructions, I think there might be very little role for a House of Lords. It will be a little while before you get that. So I do think there is a modest role for the House of Lords. I would like this joint committee to take the House of Commons as it exists and consider how the Lords can be complemented. Where I do not really, I am afraid, agree with the Lord Norton is in his account of how wonderfully the Lords does its job at the moment. I think it is easier to believe in the abstract than in practice and in particular most of the amendments we make to legislation in the Lords are by the Government. Most are trivial.
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) Could I just add that when Lord Lipsey says he would like election to the House of Commons, he means by proportional representation, not by a fair electoral system. On the point about functions, I think demonstrably the House of Lords actually does fulfil its functions rather well. If you look at the origins of government amendments, a lot of them derive from committee stage where ministers have actually made an acknowledgement of—"if you withdraw it, we will bring in a properly drafted amendment". I am not saying the House of Lords could not be strengthened in executing its functions. I am saying it fulfils them tolerably well. I would like to see reform of the second chamber that facilitates it fulfilling its presenting functions even better.

  138. Coming from that, one of you said it is whipping system. Do you see, whatever stage we get to, however we get there, that it should be party whipping that gets legislation through in whatever guise? Is whipping in the House of Lords something that you would consider?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) You have made a number of points on that. There is a whip system. I think you need a whip system. Whips are important as channels of communication. They are essential for the smooth running of a political body. You need whips for communication functions, for sending out information of what is important that is why the Cross-Benchers do not have such a good turnout as the party members: they do not have that to the same degree. You need whips. The value of the House of Lords is that you have got whips but they completely lack the carrots and sticks that whips have in other legislative chambers. We can vote as we wish, and it is shown in Hansard, and the whips can do absolutely nothing about it. You can decide and, if you do not like what is going on, the general norm is to be absent, to abstain, or if you really disagree, as I have occasionally done on three-line whips, you vote against and that is it. That is one of the advantages of our arrangements. You have got the whips who are performing the communication function but they have no role in a disciplinary sense because they have no sanctions they can deploy.

  139. First of all, do you see them having more of a role in a reformed chamber?
  (Professor Lord Norton of Louth) It depends what the reform is. If it is reform within the existing arrangements, then things are fine. I think the moment you start to inject an election, then obviously you are going to get those who take a party whip, who are there by reason of election, and therefore the whips would have a greater role to play because if you start to bring in the other elements, you will find that you have not actually changed why people have sought election and are elected.
  (Lord Lipsey) I start from the position that the power of the whips in the Lords has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. It may be as Lord Norton described for the Conservative side of the House of Lords; it is certainly not for the Labour side. We have iron whipping backed by the strongest of all sanctions, which is social disapproval. My fear is that if you have the wrong kind of election, particularly if we have two short terms for elected Lords the power of the whips will be further increased because these will be people who require not just the one lot of party patronage needed to get there in the first place, but continuing doses of party patronage to stay there, and then we will become more of a cloned house. I think that the real peril to the Lords at the moment is the whips.

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