Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 220 - 233)



  220. Lord Lipsey said that the moral censure of the whips in the House of Lords was enough to keep him in line. Lord Norton took the view there was no need to worry about these things and if you felt genuinely concerned about an issue you could vote against the party because they had no powers of patronage over you. Now with an increased selection you will have patronage and you will have more power in the hands of the whips and the idea that somehow you can deploy specialists and independent people and try and hold a balance would seem to me to be, in the end, an untenable proposition. Once you start down the road of elected members it will be difficult to argue that you should not elect them all.
  (Mr Cook) There would seem to be a fundamental point in what you are putting to me that I must say I find myself disagreeing with. You seem to be arguing that because more people are elected, and therefore in the nature of not only our democracy but every parliamentary democracy I am aware of stands as part of a party platform, that therefore they are necessarily going to be subject to the power of the whips and this is wrong. If we go too far down that argument we will end up rejecting elections as a basis on which we constitute our legislature. Secondly, it is not surprising that when elected most party members vote with their party because after all that is the platform on which they are elected. The reason why Labour's legislation goes through the House of Commons is not primarily because the whips go out telling people they must do it, it is because by and large Labour Members feel they wish to vote for Labour proposals, and those are the policies on which they stood. At the end of the day, to be honest, I think "power" of the whips is much exaggerated. There is not really that much they can do if you say no but it is down to Members themselves whether they wish to. The fact they say "yes" is not a criticism of them, they genuinely agree with what the Government is doing.

  221. So far you are in a minority of one on that. Most people do feel the power of the whips is growing.
  (Mr Cook) In my time I have been a minority much bigger than one.

  222. One of the things that clearly we want to do in this is to get probably more interested and feel more involved in what is going on. You rightly said that the Stevenson Commission had a limited view in what sort of people they were looking for. How do you think that a different sort of commission, or perhaps a continuation of this process could be done in order to give greater confidence to the public as a whole that people of distinction, I think that is right, or representative of areas of importance in the country could be drawn?
  (Mr Cook) The Stevenson Commission was interesting in that not only did it involve the kind of people I have referred to but it went about the process in a much more transparent way than we had ever done before. The idea of advertising for membership of the House of Lords would have looked rather odd years ago but that is what they did and they had 3,000 applications, if I remember rightly. At the end of the day it was regretted the fact that there were many who they believed would make good members but whom they could not appoint. Some of them may in the fullness of time come forward. As I said earlier in reply to Mr White, if we are looking for people who have distinction, experience and expertise to bring then we should not then be surprised if they have already achieved recognition in our society. Mr Prentice had a very effective question to me the other day about the number who were knights. It is in the nature of people with distinction, experience or standing that some of them probably are going to have had that recognition. One of those who was knighted first was Sir Claus Moser who is an extremely distinguished scientist and statistician who was frequently quoted in aid by my party in opposition for his outspokenness about the policies of the government to which he was Chief Statistician.

  223. I am going to ask you one last question. Various people have suggested to us that under any of these reformed systems there might be a class or species of professional politician of a type post your generation, if I might put it that way, who would use the House of Lords as a stepping stone perhaps to get into the House of Commons, as some people might have used being an MEP, and some people have suggested that there might be an age bar in the Lords, a minimum age of 45 or 50, to try and winnow out people who wanted to be career politicians. Does this hold any attraction to you?
  (Mr Cook) It is a novel idea and I would want to think about it. An age bar of 45 would still be consistent with a reduction in the average age. I am not sure that I am attracted to any blanket rule. For example, Lord Stevenson,[1] the Chief Executive of Centre Point, is 37 which is below 45. On the other consideration which you mentioned which prompted this suggestion, I have some difficulty with the idea that we should say that anybody is banned from standing for the House of Commons. It may have all sorts of arguments in favour of it, but at the end of the day the decision of who goes to the House of Commons is a decision for the people who vote the Members of Parliament into the House of Commons. One of the consequences of what we are doing is that we will have removed some of the remaining bars, for instance, Members of the House of Lords who were hereditary Peers can now stand for the House of Commons and, indeed, one has been elected and one has become an elected Peer whilst being there.

  224. The age suggestion is his!
  (Mr Cook) In principle, I am not attracted to having rules saying who cannot stand for the House of Commons.

Annette Brooke

  225. Very briefly, I think I have read in the press that there is a suggestion that if the Government does not think that it can get something through in the form it would wish, there might not be anything at all for the House of Commons to vote on. Would you be able to say whether there definitely will be something on which a vote will be taken in the House of Commons?
  (Mr Cook) I have said vigorously and at some length in the debate on Thursday that, for me, it is a high priority to try and find the point on which we can proceed. I do not want to see the option that what we end up with is nothing. First of all, I think that is wrong in principle. Secondly, it leaves us with a Parliament which would be lop-sided in the sense that we are modernising the Commons and not modernising the second chamber. Thirdly, it would be a missed opportunity to provide an effective, modern second chamber. Fourthly, some of the problems of the House of Lords will not go away, so I want to see something happen. You ask can I give an absolute definite guarantee and I am conscious that there are ladies and gentlemen of the press waiting to write down headlines "Cook cannot guarantee anything will happen" so I am very tempted to give that guarantee in order that I do not get those headlines, but I need the co-operation of others if I am going to find that centre of gravity. I cannot do that all on my own.

Mr Prentice

  226. We are going to help you though!
  (Mr Cook) Thank you, Gordon.

  227. Just very briefly, I am intrigued about these people of distinction, these "alpha" people that we need to legislate for us. There are a lot of people of distinction who get OBEs and MBEs and sometimes these people are home helps and sometimes these people are lollipop ladies. Do you think in Labour's second chamber that there will be room for people of distinction who are lollipop ladies?
  (Mr Cook) Indeed, one of the strengths of the House of Commons is precisely that there are people in it from all walks of life, and that is the basis of our claim to be representative of the British people and an expression of the democratic will of the British people. I would hope that any system we evolve of direct or indirect election would enable a more mixed social composition in the second chamber. Whether we should change the remit of the Statutory Appointments Commission to require them to appoint a proportion of such people begs a number of very interesting and challenging questions, like how do you identify those that you then appoint, but I certainly take a view that if we are going to have a representative second chamber then, like the Commons, people from all walks of life have to be there.

  228. You have anticipated my question because it would be possible to change the terms of reference of the Statutory Appointments Commission to look at people who have never been to university, that come from manual occupations, it would be perfectly possible to change the remit if you wanted a second chamber which was in some measure appointed.
  (Mr Cook) I certainly would not suggest that we should have a requirement that they should have gone to university. I rather suspect that quite a few of the historic second chamber have not been to university. And I will not be drawn on that, hopefully nothing was heard! I would want to reflect on that, Gordon, without giving a snap answer. But yes, the whole point of democracy is that we are all equal voters, our views are of equal worth and worthy of equal expression in the House.

Mr Trend

  229. Can I have a last quick question. This Government has, in fact, written a constitution for our nation, in effect, and set up a Parliamentary system, which it did in Edinburgh, which seems to work extremely well, and there they went for a unicameral solution. I know there is a lot of guff about the House of Lords but it is not the reality. It seems to me that the instinct of the Government—and I can understand why it is the instinct of any Government—is to find a way in which one can placate those who say that the present system is not working, but that, essentially, they want to create power, which our system does in an almost unique way in the world, in the hands of patronage of the Prime Minister, and we are now trying to fix the second chamber so that it still does not harm the House of Commons. Why on earth do we want a second chamber? The Government which you support has started a system which did not have one which I would say is your first choice.
  (Mr Cook) Nobody has seriously argued the case for a bicameral devolved assembly for Scotland and the model we have is not just the creation of the Labour Party, it is famously the creation of a Commission which represented all parties except the Conservative Party, if I remember rightly, but it represented the major parties of Scotland, which did come to a consensual proposal which was not bicameral, so it was not simply our decision. They were right because, after all, the powers that extend the functions of this Scottish Parliament are not nearly as extensive as those of the Westminster Parliament and some of those issues, such as, for instance, our conduct of international relations, can be usefully ventilated in the second chamber. For instance, I noted that one of the Liberal contributors to our debate last week spoke in support of the idea (I think it is official Liberal Democrat policy) that the House of Lords should have the specific task of looking at treaties. There are those types of proposals which could not possibly arise in the Scottish context and it is working very well as a unicameral system, partly because it has a very heavy stress on committee work, more so than we do. This is something I think we can usefully copy from them. They put a lot of investment in committee structures into pre-legislative scrutiny. We do not do these things and we are therefore wise to retain our second chamber.


  230. If I could round off with a couple of questions, and one is a rather precise one. In a couple of areas in your proposals you have wanted to change what the Royal Commission recommended, particularly on issues to do with how long people serve. You insisted that the Wakeham idea of 15 years was too long and ought to come down and, similarly, you have suggested that, rather than have, as they propose, the elected element being elected at the same time as the European elections, that you smile more towards general elections. Is not the problem with both those proposals that it takes us in precisely the wrong direction? It takes us in the direction which makes this second chamber more like the first and brings it into areas of more potential conflict with it? Do we not, whatever we do, have to make it so distinctive in the way that it is composed, the way that it is elected, when it is elected and so on, the length of time that people serve, that there can be no question of it looking or being like the first chamber?
  (Mr Cook) On the first point you raise about the specific departures from Wakeham, you are correct, the White Paper is not a carbon copy of the Wakeham Commission. Indeed, Lord Wakeham himself has vigorously asserted that point. It is based on but is not a replica of the Commission's report. I personally think we are right about the 15-year term. That does seem to me an excessively long period and if we adopted it, it would be by far the longest term of office of any second chamber of which we are aware. The longest term of office we are aware of is the nine years for the French second chamber, and if you had members elected in batches of two successive General Elections so that the term the office would be two parliaments, you would end up with something like eight or nine years, which is broadly similar to that, which itself is at the longer end of the scale. I think we were quite right to look intelligently at points where we felt Wakeham had not quite got it right. On your other point of principle, I find myself totally in agreement with you, Chairman. For me there is a great danger that if you end up with a second House of Commons along the corridor you will find a very marked change in the status, powers and prerogatives of the present House of Commons. I think a mixed membership goes a long way in order to meet that particular anxiety, quite apart from its own attractions in its own right of enabling people to come into the House who would not come into it through elections. I do think as we take this debate forward we need to consider carefully to what extent we wish to create a situation in which the second chamber would take on powers that are now seen by us and our electors as matters for the Commons. For instance, do our electors really want their tax to be settled by the second chamber?

  231. Just one final point, and this goes back to where we started and you were talking about this huge latitude within which we could hope to find a centre of gravity. I thought we were talking particularly this argument about elected Peers, but listening to you now and listening to discussions about direct election and so on, I wonder if we should regard that more widely. When you say in the White Paper that these are the areas that you want particularly to consult on, they are all areas circumscribed by the conversation started by Wakeham and then continued by the White Paper. What I am really asking you is are you now saying not just on the election point but more widely that people really should start thinking outside the box on all this, so that we can almost start over again? There was one form of indirect election proposed by Lord Bryce in 1919 that Members of the House of Commons should choose Members of the House of Lords. There are all kind of ways of doing this. Are you really saying that we can start thinking widely? Is that what "latitude" means?
  (Mr Cook) "Latitude" was your word, Chairman, not mine. First of all, indirect elections are inside the box in the sense they are canvassed within the White Paper, they are canvassed in ways that fairly—and I make no complaint about this—set out some of the problems there of which by far the greatest is 70 per cent of the electorate in the United Kingdom still has no devolved regional body, so if you are going down that road, you are going down that road on the basis of starting here and expanding as more regional bodies come on-stream. What is, to use your term, "out of the box" is any idea that this could become the sole or major basis for a constituted second chamber. I speak—and I stress this—personally as somebody who has perhaps had more experience of regional devolved bodies than many other Members and that could be a useful supplement to the direct election which would provide members with a democratic mandate but not the same direct democratic mandate as ourselves. Thus it would not provide a basis for challenging us in the Commons as an expression of the will of the people. That is certainly on the agenda. I would discourage people to go in for what I understand the fashionable term is "blue skies" thinking because this debate has gone on for some years and if we want to get proposals through in the context of this Parliament in time for the next General Election we have to move towards a decision, and therefore I would not encourage people to think outside the box, there is enough inside the box to think about creatively.

  232. Are you suggesting that putting Lord Birt in charge of second chamber reform would not be a good idea, on balance?
  (Mr Cook) As far as I am aware, he has not volunteered.

  233. I have almost done with you but not quite. Can I just have one final, final go which is that in the search for consensus I would just put to you the point that is made very strongly in the Constitution Unit's observations on the White Paper which is that, in fact, constitutional reform does not proceed by consensus, it proceeds by people doing it and then other people adjusting to it having been done and accepting it. Indeed, this is the story of the Government's own constitutional reform programme largely. So is not the real task to find proposals that are coherent and principled so that we can argue for and implement rather than seek for a consensus which may never arrive?
  (Mr Cook) I was careful when I spoke earlier not to impale myself on consensus as defined by unanimity. You are right that constitutional reform requires leadership not simply total unanimity. To take the case of devolution there was opposition to what we did in devolution which I think was the right course. What was important was that, of course, it did have a substantial popular support. There is popular support for reform of the second chamber. There is real popularity of ending the hereditary principle. There is, I think, popular support for a bicameral system rather than a unicameral system. You can identify areas where there is not consensus but that weight of popular demand. I think we need to find a way forward that also attracts that weight of popular demand even if there are those who resist it.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming and talking to us so openly and frankly.

1   Witness correction: Victor Adebowale. Back

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