Examination of Witness (Questions 220
THURSDAY 17 JANUARY 2002
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
(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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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 Governmentand I can understand
why it is the instinct of any Governmentis 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
(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 fairlyand I make no complaint about
thisset 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 speakand I stress thispersonally 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
(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