Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 193 - 199)




  193. Can I welcome Robin Cook, Leader of the House. It is very kind of you to come along and help the Committee with its short inquiry into the Government's proposals on the reform of the second chamber. I do not think you want to make a statement?

  (Mr Cook) I am at the disposal of the Committee. I am aware that time is necessarily tight, I would much rather listen to the Committee and respond to questions.

  194. Thank you very much. If I could just start with a couple of questions and then bring colleagues in. Just to get a sense of where you and the Government are coming from on this, on the basis of the proposals in the White Paper, there is a strong emphasis in those proposals on the need not to upset the balances and the section in there which talks about the pre-eminence of the House of Commons is entirely about not upsetting these balances in the system. Could I put this to you. If we think that is the direction that we have got to come from we shall not really understand what this is about because surely we do need to upset the balances in the system and overwhelmingly we need to upset the balance between Parliament as a whole and the Executive. Is that not what reform should be about? Is that not what part of your reform in the Commons is about? Is that not what the Liaison Committee Report last year on shifting the balance was all about? Instead of just saying that our job here is to preserve the balance, is not the real job to see how reform of the House of Lords could sit inside the general task of shifting the balance?
  (Mr Cook) I think there are two quite distinct and separate concepts of balance in what you ask, Tony. First of all, on the question of the balance between Parliament and the Government, I have been robust in saying that I do not see the process of modernisation as a matter of a tug of war between Government and Parliament. They both need each other, to be healthy and effective. As I have been repeatedly saying, my watchword is good scrutiny makes for good government. I think that the measures that I have included in my memorandum on modernisation of the Commons will help Parliament to be more effective, to do a better job of scrutiny and, particularly in the case of legislation, to have a longer time for scrutiny. I am not sure that I would necessarily use the words "shifting the balance" in that context but, for the record, by the time we have completed our proposals on the Select Committees in the next few months we will have met most of the agenda within shifting the balance, so that is progressive. There is a quite separate issue of the balance between the Commons and the Lords. We are certainly robust in the White Paper in setting out that we see the Commons as the pre-eminent chamber, that we do not wish to undermine that pre-eminence or make any proposal that would achieve an equivalence between the Commons and the Lords. Anything that makes the House of Lords more representative, more democratic, more legitimate, is likely to produce some shift in the relative position of the House of Lords. What we must take care to do is not to achieve a second chamber which over a period of time would seek parity with the Commons and perhaps not even stop at parity. Do remember that when the founding fathers wrote the American constitution they saw the House of Representatives as the superior chamber and expected the Senate to be a very inferior one.

  195. You have explained it very well and you have explained the difference between the different kinds of balance but I want to press you a bit further. Nobody is suggesting that the constitutional balance of powers between the Commons and the Lords should be altered. That is given in all the discussion that is going on here, both in your proposals and in the Royal Commission and so on. What I am really asking is do we not need a stronger second chamber to combine with a reformed and stronger House of Commons more effectively to hold governments to account?
  (Mr Cook) You need a representative effective second chamber so that it can carry out those functions that it currently has and which we in the White Paper identified as where its future role lies. I think if you get into the idea that you change the balance between Parliament and the Executive by strengthening the second chamber, you have got to understand the logic of what you are saying, which is that you will also be strengthening the second chamber as against the present Parliament's position, the status of the first chamber, of the Commons. If I can just take up your opening statement where you said that everybody takes as a given the constitutional status of the Lords, I am sure that is true in the sense that we could all sit down and write a description of what those powers or status should be but a constitution cannot be fixed on any one piece of paper, it changes, it shifts, it breathes, it lives, it grows. Indeed, if you look back over the past 400 years, the parliamentary history of those 400 years has been a gradual shift of power from the Lords to the Commons creating a very different animal in the second chamber. If you create one that may claim an equally democratic mandate you will find some of that flow starting to reverse itself.

  196. Okay. One further question just to get us up and running. When we had Lord Lipsey here a few minutes ago, a Labour Peer, someone who was broadly supportive of the Government's proposals in the White Paper when they appeared, he has now told us that he thought they were a dead duck. He gave a graphic description of this duck with its feet in the air and the need to move on now into different territory. Is that a correct reading of the situation, do you think?
  (Mr Cook) I thought I heard you referring to Peers as a dead duck. The White Paper was issued for consultation and, indeed, we were quite explicit about the consultative character of it in that we posed six specific questions on the last page. The very first of those was: is the proposed proportion between the elected membership and the appointed membership correct? I would fully accept that the broad tenor of the response to the consultation, both within Parliament and outside Parliament, has tended to suggest that in the minds of most people the answer to that is that this is not the correct proportion. That is why I said on Thursday that the end of consultation must be followed by a period of reflection in which we consider the views that have been expressed. We use that time to try and establish where is the centre of gravity around which reform could gather. As I warned last Thursday, for me the most serious risk is that we end up in a situation in which we are unable to achieve a sufficient critical mass of agreement among those who want reform for any reform to take place. That, after all, is why the reform of the House of Lords has taken so long to achieve. I am very keen that we should make it a priority on all sides of those who want reform to try and find common ground around which we can build not a consensus, because there are too many different views and some people will never be convinced, but at least a centre of gravity.

  197. I think we are very mindful of that. Just on that before I go to colleagues, we need to be clear whether we are talking about fundamental principles or whether we are talking about room for pragmatic manoeuvre. I really would find it helpful, and the Committee would find it helpful, in knowing how to proceed in looking at this whole area, to know whether the Government had dug itself in as a matter of constitutional principle that crucially the elected element of a reformed second chamber had to be a minority or whether it would find no constitutional bar, to use language from another debate, to moving to one where that element was a majority?
  (Mr Cook) First of all, I do not think that I would feel comfortable suggesting that we can ever build a principle around a percentage. By definition, which percentage you choose is a matter of judgment. If you are seeking what we might identify as the two principles at each pole of this debate, the first principle is that there must be an elected element. In the second chamber, if it is going to exercise scrutiny of public policy in the public interest, then there must at least be some of that second chamber who are elected by the public. The second principle I would then enunciate, and one which I dwelt on at some length in my speech on Thursday, is that I personally would be strongly opposed to a wholly elected second chamber because once you concede that you concede a chamber that will be entitled to claim an equally democratic mandate to the Commons and the principle of the pre-eminence of the Commons certainly then would be undermined. Those are two principles at different poles of the discussion. Where in between those two poles you hit on the right percentage I think is a matter of judgment. For me the matter of judgment very much is where can we find that point at which we have a centre of gravity which enables reformers on both sides of that percentage to come together. Also, I do not think that we should get too fixated necessarily in looking at this as a majority/minority question because in the real world when the House of Lords, or whatever it may be, meets in the future it will not be a vote between those elected and those not elected, it will be between those who take a liberal perspective, with a small `L' and the perspective of those who may take a more conservative view.

  Chairman: That is a very helpful answer. If I understood you correctly it means that as you describe these two opposites there is enormous latitude between them for manoeuvre. Thank you very much for that.

Brian White

  198. I start from the point of view of being a unicameralist and not accepting the second chamber as the right place but, given that seems to be outside the bounds of the argument, I just want to concentrate on the appointed element of the proposals. Is the Government committed to the fact that they have to be appointed or would it consider an indirect elected route as a way of appointing those members?
  (Mr Cook) I do not know that those are necessarily alternatives, they could well co-exist together. Indeed, the only four ways that have been identified as entry points, if I can put it in those terms, would be direct elections by the public, appointment by an independent body such as the Stevenson Commission, appointment by the political leaders and indirect elections by other collective bodies. I think it is very important if we go down the indirect election route that the indirect elections are themselves carried out by democratically elected bodies such as, for instance, the devolved bodies of future regional assemblies which may flow from the forthcoming White Paper. You could envisage a composition that drew on more than one of those different routes and having, say, the Stevenson Commission carrying out independent appointments on a statutory basis is not inconsistent with having also some indirectly elected, not as an alternative to a direct election but as a complement to it. Views on this differ. I mentioned this in the course of my speech last Thursday. As somebody who comes from a part of the United Kingdom where there is a vigorous and well supported devolved body I can see the attractions of the indirect election route. It also, as I said on Thursday, comes closer to the model that exists through most of Europe. Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, all have second chambers which are predominantly reflections of indirect election by regional local bodies. If though that is to come into the frame when we come to revise these proposals I think we need to hear from those devolved bodies that exist that they want to go down that route. The Wakeham Commission reported that it found no support among them for such a position but that may have changed. The whole point of consultation is to identify whether that has changed.

  199. Given the reducing turnouts at General Elections and other elections, how does the Government see the relevance of the changes in the House of Lords about re-establishing credibility with the electorate?
  (Mr Cook) Can I just say in passing, arising from your earlier question, the turnout at the election for the Scottish Parliament was actually higher than the turnout for the General Election in Scotland, so it is a good case which I think reinforces the validity of the indirect election route. I am very concerned about the problem you identify, which is the declining participation in our direct democracy, our parliamentary democracy, which has many explanations but one of which does appear to relate to a declining esteem for Parliament, which you can chart through a number of different surveys of social attitude. I think the remedy for that lies primarily in the hands of the Commons. As I have said on a number of occasions, we need to make ourselves appear relevant, effective, modern. We need to show that we live in the same century as the people who vote for us and that we actually carry out a serious and real job in the public interest, not carry out parliamentary games for the point of view of scoring party political points. It may be that a modern second chamber could play a part in restoring that esteem for Parliament but I think 80 per cent of the challenge certainly rests with the Commons.

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