Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 234 - 239)




  234. Can I welcome our next witness, Lord Strathclyde who is the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords. It is very kind of you to come along and assist us with our inquiry into the Government's proposals on the House of Lords reform. I do not know if you have something to say to us. We have seen the proposals from your party. Would you like to make just a short statement?
  (Lord Strathclyde) First of all, can I thank you very much indeed for asking me along. I know you have had a long afternoon of taking evidence so I will not weary you with being lengthy at this stage of the evening. The reason why I congratulate you is I think this is the only forum that there has been for inter-House discussions about the future of the second chamber, which is, of course, our main objection to what is being done by the Government, this idea that they can bulldoze through a piece of legislation on the House of Lords when we are entirely committed to this being explored through a Joint Committee of both Houses and for one very good reason. The differences that exist on the future of the second chamber exist not just between parties and between the Houses but within the parties. Therefore, it strikes me that the best way of resolving them is not for the parties to slang it out but to try and find a different mechanism, namely a Joint Committee or a Speakers Conference, call it what you will if the Government is so appalled at the idea of a Joint Committee, to try and resolve those differences before coming forward with a plan that has a chance of getting through. That is the basis of our view. I have, as you know I think, issued a brief document about proposals which the Conservative Party and Ian Duncan-Smith outlined in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend. We will be following this up with a full response to the White Paper in due course but I thought it might be helpful to the Committee to just have a very brief view of the proposal that we would put to a Joint Committee if any was ever set up.

  235. Thank you very much for that. Let me just try to set the scene a bit by asking one or two questions. When Lord Wakeham came to see us last week he said that in retrospect he realised that it was not his word a master stroke but something like a master stroke on the part of the Government to do a stage one of Lords' reforms. He said he sees now that in fact without that, that would not have got the thing moving at all. Is that now on reflection your view?
  (Lord Strathclyde) No, it is not. It was a master stroke by the Government to remove the political imbalance in the House of Lords and of course to remove what they hated most which was the hereditary peerage. What it was not though was a master stroke to get a lasting reform to the second chamber. Our argument, which we argued strongly at the time, which was 1998 and 1999, was there should be no stage one without stage two because the only real incentive to create a long lasting reform was the illegitimacy of the hereditary peerage. Once you have removed that the argument for further reform would gradually fall by the wayside. So while I agree with many things that Lord Wakeham says I disagree with that.

  236. Let us move on a little bit then to where we are now. What perplexed me a little bit was why now, having arrived at this position you have arrived at in the last few days, this was not the position which you sought to take to the Royal Commission which was set up a couple of years ago. When did this conversion experience take place?
  (Lord Strathclyde) The Conservative Party has changed its position, there is no question of that. I think the Conservative Party when it looks at constitutional change is slow to come forward with radical views. We tend to want to work within existing boundaries, to use the mechanisms which are in place, to make sure that they are as effective as possible and also, quite frankly, to concentrate on many of the other issues which affect the nation, affect the people of this country. Constitutional change has never been a great banner particularly in the party for the last 50 years or so, so when it came to all the radical changes which have taken place over the last four years on devolution or the Human Rights Act or the independence of the Bank of England, setting up the Greater London Assembly and the reform of the House of Lords, we have on the whole been on the "do you not think they should be more fully thought through" side of the argument than "go ahead and see what happens next". That has now changed vis a vis the House of Lords for one simple reason and that is that we have always said that we are keen on seeing a second stage and the ideas that we have come forward with are firmly based on democracy, on direct elections away from the party choice of closed lists, they are radical, they are for a smaller House, they include more powers for a second chamber and I think that they end up with a chamber which is better than that we currently have which, to me, is the only reason for going forward for a further reform.

  237. People will find it a little perplexing to have moved from, as it were, defending the hereditary principle one moment to then not putting proposals like this at all before a Royal Commission set up to examine the issue and then to come forward with these proposals now, indeed to come forward with them a day after rather than a day before a debate in the House of Commons on them. It all looks a bit odd, does it not?
  (Lord Strathclyde) I am not aware that we ever defended the hereditary principle. Throughout the 1999 Act our complaint was that further reform was insufficiently thought through and it was on that basis that we opposed the 1999 Act. As for the Royal Commission, I think one of the problems that the Royal Commission had was that they were viewing the situation, first of all without the opportunity of having seen how the new House would operate and secondly, and most importantly, there was at that stage none of this massive new influx of peers which means that a third of the current House of Lords has been nominated by one man, the Prime Minister, and 60 per cent of the Labour Party owes its place to Tony Blair. It may be—I cannot possibly tell—that if the Royal Commission were re-examining things now they might come up with different conclusions.

  238. Yes. There has been a feeling, and indeed a charge, and I must say I have I suppose echoed it in a way, a doubt that the Conservative Party has been entirely serious about this issue in terms of a substantive issue, and I am talking not just about recent times, I am talking about going back into the last Parliament and indeed when I was rather closer to the issue in some ways than now. It seemed to me there were moments when if the Conservative Party had been serious about engaging with the issue we could have had a settlement a long time ago.
  (Lord Strathclyde) In 1998/1999 William Hague asked James Mackay the great Lord Chancellor to chair an internal party commission on the future of the House of Lords. He came up with two options, one for a wholly elected, one for an overwhelmingly elected. The proposal that we now have is very firmly rooted in those ideas. The thought that we have suddenly woken up to this idea is a false one, these have been within the Conservative Party for a number of years. What is true is that at the time of the Royal Commission I do not think the Conservative Party was in a position to put forward these views. I should remind you though that this radical reforming Government had no clue what its second stage should be until November of last year when it published its proposals in the White Paper. Not even at the General Election in June in their manifesto could they explain what their policy was going to be except in the broadest possible terms.

  239. Let us get to the heart of this then. If there is this charge with some evidence to it, and indeed you have confirmed some of it in terms of the history, that there has not been an entire consistency of approach on the part of the Conservative Party to this matter, and a feeling that probably they were not therefore going to be terribly helpful in moving towards an agreed solution, I think what would be very nice to hear is that there is now an absolute determination on the part of the Conservative Party to seriously engage in discussions about coming forward with an agreed solution and the kind of latitude that you heard Robin Cook describe just now, that is the Government does not have a fixed position, it is prepared to move, there is a wide area in which negotiation can take place, that is the spirit in which the Conservative Party will approach this too.
  (Lord Strathclyde) I will not follow you down this road of inconsistency. We were opposed to the 1999 Act, rightly in my mind. If the Government had come forward with a desire for a genuine reform at that stage I am convinced that the Conservative Party at that time would have joined the other political parties in coming forward with an acceptable long term solution. However, that opportunity was never offered by the Government and it was only when we accepted into the Cranborne compromise that ultimately we got a Bill which could go through the second chamber. As to your second question, you have asked me to agree with the Government. We have been asking the Government to set up a Joint Committee so we can precisely have these kinds of discussions for two years. In the summer of last year, I think in July, Lord Williams of Mostyn said that there would not be a joint Committee, it having been promised in the past by Lady Jay and Lord Falkender and we understood it was going to happen immediately after the last General Election and Lord Williams effectively shut that door in our face. If the Government do wish now to do something in this way then I would be the first to wish to co-operate. Our thoughts are in a proposal, a proposal that we would put to the Joint Committee. As I say it is firmly rooted in democracy, I think it is in the mainstream of public opinion. Certainly it has support from the Liberal Democrats, not in every aspect of it but on the main principle of democracy though I think they would probably like to see proportional representation rather than first past the post but that is the kind of issue that could be discussed, perhaps there could be a deal on that and on many other issues. I think that has to come in a joint committee rather than in secret back door deals in the Houses of Parliament.

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