Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 240 - 259)

THURSDAY 17 JANUARY 2002

THE RT HON LORD STRATHCLYDE

  240. This is what I am inviting you to say, to move on in this positive spirit. As I say, there is a feeling abroad that the Government is clearly in some political difficulties about this and therefore it presents a nice political opportunity to compound those difficulties, but I think that route will never give us any kind of basis for reforming the second chamber. I hope what I am hearing and inviting you to say is that there is a willingness now to engage in positive, constructive building of reform of the second chamber.
  (Lord Strathclyde) You say there is a willingness now as there never has been before. We have always offered ourselves up to the Government to help look for a lasting solution. We have always complained about what the Government appeared to want to do, which is to come up with a solution and seek to bulldoze it through both Houses of Parliament. It is clear to me that that is no longer going to work. There is a House of Commons EDM, the Mactaggart EDM, which has nearly 200 MPs as signatories so there needs to be a re-think. I offer to the Government the best way of doing that re-think is to bring together such a joint committee and to use the combined wisdom of parliamentarians in both Houses to come forward realistically with a solution. I do believe that is possible. I think there is a sufficient common ground between the parties to do that.

  241. And the paper that you have produced is to be seen as a contribution to that discussion rather than any final solution?
  (Lord Strathclyde) Very much so.

  Chairman: Thank you. Ian?

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  242. Can I come back to the joint committee of the House, where do you see the House in, say, five years' time, regardless of what the proportion of elected Peers is? What do you see the House doing in five to ten years' time?
  (Lord Strathclyde) Let us assume that a reform has taken place. I think it will be stronger, more effective, I think it will be more authorative, it will be listened to more by the Government when it seeks to make changes to legislation, and I think it will be more self confident in using the powers it already has but rarely uses. I think that will be of benefit to the legislation which ultimately comes out of Parliament. I suspect there will be less legislation going through and there may be more recourse to the Parliament Acts in certain instances. I think that will be the nature of the House. I also think the power will move from Government back to Parliament and there may be a resurgence of the independence of the House of Commons, with the example of the House of Lords. I think all these are eminently good things and also, ironically, at the end of the day you will get stronger and better government. I regard all of this as being a win for Parliament, a win for the House of Lords and a win for the House of Commons, too.

  243. I think one of the interesting things about the joint committee is what its remit would be. If there is a joint committee—and Robin Cook has said he has not ruled it out, it is just that he has not quite got there because nobody can decide on what the remit should be—
  (Lord Strathclyde) He has ruled it out, or the Government has, but I will not labour that point because it may be that they are going to change their minds and I do not want to rub their noses in it if they are going to come up with a commendable change of direction. I have put two proposals forward to the Government. The first was that they should simply relay the Royal Commission report to a joint committee and ask them to discuss it in the widest possible manner. I think that is now probably out of date. My second suggestion, and more recent one, was that they should come forward with a draft Bill, perhaps with options in it, and that should be the basis of a discussion to a joint committee and then line by line you go through it and make changes. In fact, the latter is the one that I, on the whole, still prefer. It also fits in with the flow of what Robin Cook and Gareth Williams in the House of Lords would like to see, which is more pre-legislative scrutiny, and this may be a very practical way of offering it in reality.

  244. You talk about electing 240 senators in 80 constituencies. If that is the case, do you see the potential problem of direct interference—although you say you do not think there will be because the House of Lords will be rejuvenating the House of Commons—do you not think, in reality, it will start stepping on the toes of the House of Commons because it is trying to define its own role in life?
  (Lord Strathclyde) I think to some extent that could happen. There may be particularly active senators, there may be inactive Members of Parliament, and you may find that the constituents go to a senator rather than a Member of Parliament, but I do not see that as entirely something to be feared. I think to some extent it already happens in Scotland between MPs and MSPs and I do not think that people are overwhelmingly concerned about that and it sharpens everyone's act up. With the principle of democracy (and therefore representation) there is always going to be a borderline between the responsibilities of the two Houses. The only alternative is to not have democracy.

  245. Let me finish on democracy. This has almost become a witch hunt because nobody can agree as to where we are going to go. Even our Chairman was misquoted on the radio. Where are we going to get to? What is happening at the moment is that everybody is going in different directions, but how are we going to get to a consensus of any form that is going to make a good House of Lords or a senate?
  (Lord Strathclyde) Two or three years ago there was a great rush for change. There was a thought, which I shared, that the current second chamber would be a hopeless and ineffective body and unable to perform its functions post the removal of hereditary Peers. Actually, that has proved not to be the case and I think that the House of Lords has continued to do its job extremely well, and you only have to look at the terrorist legislation at the end of last year as an example of that. I am, therefore, not one who believes we need to rush into a great change in the course of the next few months. The delay, which I feared meant that a reform would never happen, has already occurred. I do not think the Government has been dragging its heels, I think it is force majeure which has meant that this has occurred. So I go back to how do you move forward: you set up a committee, you get a forum of get sensible people together and you give them the necessary tools to do the work and then it becomes a political decision by the Government and by other parties as to whether or not they are willing to co-operate, whether they see the prize of reform as being sufficiently important.

Brian White

  246. As we have now got to this position where the issue of the reform of the House of Lords is back under serious consideration, is it not the case that most of the countries around the world are unicameral? Why do we need a second chamber or senate at all?
  (Lord Strathclyde) I do not know if most of the countries around the world are unicameral, but certainly modern, civilised democracies in Europe and the Commonwealth and the United States are bicameral and seem to find a use for that. It depends if you think the House of Lords does a useful job, and I think it does. In fact, I think it is the most effective part of Parliament and I think if it were not there it would be much missed. You only have to look at changes in legislation over the last few years to see that. Certainly if there were no second chamber, it would need a fundamental reappraisal of the work of the House of Commons and, in fact, Chairman, I think that what is missing in all these decisions is that nobody ever talks about reform of the first House. I was very struck by the evidence and what Shirley Williams said in her speech last week in the House of Lords about how important it was to see reform of the second chamber in the context of the reform of the whole of Parliament and I think that is right.

  247. Is not one of the blocks to reform of the House of Commons the fact that the illegitimacy of the House of Lords exists?
  (Lord Strathclyde) At the moment?

  248. Yes?
  (Lord Strathclyde) Do you think that the current House is more legitimate than the pre-1999 House? No, I agree with you. I do not think that the current House is any more legitimate than the 1999 House. But Margaret Jay did, on behalf of the Government, and she said in 1999 "now that we are rid of the hereditary House, we have a more legitimate chamber, one that Ministers would be obliged to listen to more and be stronger and more powerful", and all this kind of stuff. We tried to prove the point in subsequent years but it was not the case. The Government did not find that we were any more legitimate or any more authoritative than we had been before, yet I think that the problem is that the House of Commons has the authority and legitimacy to call the executive to account and does not use it, and the second House does not have the authority and the legitimacy but does sometimes have the power to use it. So I think there needs to be a re-balancing and part of that is to give the second chamber a greater legitimacy and greater authority and perhaps that will help the House of Commons use its power better as well.

  249. Is there not a myth it is somehow the great and good of this country in the House of Lords seeking to give independent judgment on the Government of the day when the reality is that when it was a Conservative Government the House of Lords turned things over about half a dozen or a dozen times when it was a Labour Government in the last Parliament it was 29 to 30.
  (Lord Strathclyde) I think that was a very real criticism of the old House which is no more. I do not know what would happen if there was now a Conservative Government with the current House but I hasten to add the Conservative position now is to support democracy, not the great and the good, as you say. It is the Labour Party's position to support the great and the good. They want to have a House which is 80 per cent appointed and even the 20 per cent which is elected is not the people's choice but party choice. It is appointment by remove because it is through a closed list system.

  250. That is why you have gone back to the old shire boundaries so that in my case by electing under your proposals three senators, one for every third General Election, I would be totally represented by a Conservative senator and have no chance in Buckinghamshire of ever having a Labour representation whereas if it was by a proportional system every election, there would at least be one opposition to the two Tory peers.
  (Lord Strathclyde) Certainly under proportional systems you get different results from first past the post. As for the boundaries, and again I hasten to say this would be all part of what would come out of a Joint Committee and ultimately a boundaries commission, we came up with a figure of 80 because that was the figure that was decided by Mackay and his constituencies were based on Roy Jenkin's proposals to the Prime Minister on proportional representation. We believe that you ought to try and fit them within a historical context. One would perhaps use the shire boundaries or the great cities or in Scotland and Wales they might do it differently, Scotland might want to be one great constituency as it is for the European elections. So we are not entirely prescriptive on this issue but I think that there could be some genuine new thinking about how these constituencies fit in and best represent the people within the constituencies.

  251. My final question then is in the debate in the House of Lords I think there were about 30 odd Conservative speakers, most of them were condemnatory of the hybrid system, a mixture. You are putting forward a mixture in the Conservative proposals, a slightly different mixture but hybrid nevertheless. How do you think you will get that through given the level of opposition there is. I think it was Lord St John of Bletso who said "I can see some merit in an elected chamber. I can see some merit in an appointed chamber. I can see no merit in a hybrid chamber".
  (Lord Strathclyde) The bald fact is we want an 80:20 House so in that respect it is a hybrid House but our proposal is that the political members of the House would all be elected. So we argue it is 100 per cent elected House for politicians and the 20 per cent are made up of the independents. I have yet to find a convincing way of electing independents to a Parliament. The cross-benchers do perform a valuable function so on the whole I would favour leaving a proportion there. That is how I justify that this is in fact not a hybrid House even though at first sight it looks it. Certainly it is not a hybrid House where it has got politicians sitting together, one elected and one appointed and one presumably paid and one unpaid and all the complexities of one representing a constituency and the other representing themselves.

Chairman

  252. When you make this argument to yourself about this not being a hybrid House do you convince yourself?
  (Lord Strathclyde) Very much so. I am entirely happy that what we have come forward with is not a hybrid House.

Kevin Brennan

  253. Just to follow up on this territory. On the issue of the electoral system we were just debating which you have put forward, do you think it would be a healthy thing if there was an overall majority in both Houses for the same party?
  (Lord Strathclyde) We proposed two different days for the elections to take place. The reason why we proposed two different days was because we could not come to a conclusion in the time we had before making this announcement. The two different days come up with different solutions. If you have them on General Election day you would tend, I think, to have similar proportions of the vote being cast in favour of the party of Government, if you had it on European Election day it would tend to be the opposite, and there are very good arguments for both. Personally I favour the General Election day to have the vote because you get the higher turn out, you tend to get a pro Government vote, although that would not necessarily be so, I actually think that people might well, as they did in the Scottish elections, where they voted on different systems, they voted for different people, different parties.

  254. Slightly.
  (Lord Strathclyde) Slightly. The point is this because we are giving them also long terms of office, even if they were from the party of Government, they are more likely not to vote with the whip on highly controversial issues which are, of course, where the House of Lords does most of its work.

  255. Pushing back to the question I asked, is it not a likely outcome of the system that you are proposing, unlike a proportional system for the second chamber, from time to time even with 20 per cent of independently appointed members, that you will get a situation where the Government party has an overall majority in both Houses? Is that a consequence you have thought of and one that you find to be an acceptable consequence of your proposal?
  (Lord Strathclyde) I think it would be extremely unlikely over three elections.

  256. I think it would be highly likely. You propose large constituencies with first past the post which makes it even less proportional than first past the post is for the House of Commons. It makes it even more likely that you will get a result skewed towards the party, a large percentage of the votes but not a majority of the votes cast.
  (Lord Strathclyde) That is why my first answer was it depends which day you do it on. I think if you look back over the last 18 or 20 years, depending on when you had elections to the Upper House, even if you took exactly the same result, you would have a very different result if you had it on General Election day compared with European Election day.

  257. The point I would make finally is that is a greater danger, the outcome which I have suggested, which is a possible outcome, than your concern about the closed list because first past the post is a closed list of one. It is a party choice and the elector gets no choice about the candidate, they are voting the party line. The greater concern would be the potential to create an elected dictatorship and that is a great danger in the Conservative proposals. The rest about the 80 per cent is neither here nor there, in that sense it could create an elected dictatorship, that is the flaw in your proposal.
  (Lord Strathclyde) If a closed list is such a good idea why are MPs not calling more for it?

  258. I am not saying it is, I am just saying it is of less danger than your proposal.
  (Lord Strathclyde) If one feels really threatened by democracy then, of course, you do end up going down the route of a more appointed House and that is not one which I particularly favour.

Chairman

  259. Just on this point, just for the record, as we say. It is the case, is it not, that the Wakeham Commission actually looked in detail at this proposal you are now putting forward and did all the figures on it, produced the table I have got here, and it says here "We conclude that a senate/Lords constituted in this manner could not fulfil any useful role as a revising chamber or as a moderating check and balance mechanism on the behaviour of the Government with a Commons majority for precisely the reason that has been identified. It compounds an elected dictatorship rather than checks it."
  (Lord Strathclyde) Lord Wakeham's proposals all came up with a minority elected element because they wanted completely to avoid any concern that there would be any difficulty between the two Houses. I am less concerned about that. I think it might be a very good thing to have more clashes between the Houses and for the second chamber, the senate, to exert its authority more against the Government. I said earlier on I think you would get better legislation, I think you would get less legislation and I think that would be to everybody's benefit.


 
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