Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 278 - 299)

THURSDAY 24 JANUARY 2002

MARK FISHER, THE RT HON ERIC FORTH AND FIONA MACTAGGART

Chairman

  278. It is a great pleasure to welcome three of our colleagues here: Mark Fisher, Eric Forth and Fiona Mactaggart, all of whom we know have interesting things to say about the reform of the second chamber, on which we have been taking evidence for these last few weeks and upon which we will be going shortly to report. Thanks to you for giving us some written material as well. I think it would be very helpful if you perhaps took a minute or so each to do two things: one, to tell us in a sense where you are coming from on this; and then, secondly, your reading of where we are. That would be helpful. First, Mark, would you like to start?

  (Mr Fisher) There are two or three things that I would like to emphasise at the start. It is my belief that, in order to get this balance right or these changes to be the most effective, it is important to see both houses together. I appreciate that the reforms of both houses have caused some difficulty for your Committee in that you cannot anticipate what the Modernisation Committee will say about the reform of the Commons but I think we run the risk of getting both reforms and modernisation of the Commons and the reform of the House of Lords wrong if we see them as two separate problems. Both of them are houses of parliament and in my view the crucial questions that both should be addressing is how Parliament, in both houses, should re-balance and reposition itself in relation to the executive. That is only possible if we see the changes that are going to happen in the second chamber in relation to the changes that are being proposed in the Commons. If that is difficult as regard the geometry of your inquiry, I still think it is an important point to emphasise and one, I hope, that will be borne in mind. The second point I would like to make, and I think those of you who have had the opportunity to read my written evidence will see this from the layout of it, is that I am very strongly of the view that the most important question is the remit of the second chamber. Over the last few months, all the interest, perhaps understandably from a media point of view, has been about the percentages and the membership and who should and should not sit here, for how long and on what basis. That is a secondary problem, not of secondary importance but secondary in that it flows from the remit. If we get the remit right, then the problem of the primacy or otherwise, the one house or the other, and the avoidance of deadlock become quite relatively easy to resolve. It is the remit, how this second chamber fits in with the work of the Commons in relation to the executive, that is crucial, and to get the remit right before we then turn to the membership I think is the right way round. It is exciting and amusing to discuss and causes great interest to the existing members and future members but I think it is of secondary importance. It also, as my third and final point—

  279. Before you go on, could I stop you there and say that when you say "remit", I would like to know quite what you mean. I presume you do not mean powers; you mean functions?
  (Mr Fisher) I mean the functions, responsibilities and of course then subsequent or running from that, the powers to fulfil those responsibilities in that role, but essentially, yes, the functions and responsibilities of a second chamber.

  280. The reason I ask you that is that I think we have had no one before us at all who has wanted to open up the question of powers. I wonder if you are wanting to do that.
  (Mr Fisher) I think the distinction between powers and responsibilities is a nice one. I am more concerned with the responsibilities than the functions of the second chamber but of course to fulfil those responsibilities, as you can see from my written submissions, for instance I put great weight on the functions and responsibility of scrutiny, and we need some powers to fulfil those scrutineer functions. But, no, you are quite right to tease out what I mean by that. I think it is more responsibilities as a role of the second chamber. I want to emphasise that is the key thing rather than the membership. From that, the question of deadlock and primacy would be resolved. It is always easier to resolve that. There was one other point I wanted to make but it has flown from me. I am sure I will have an opportunity to say it later.

  281. Eric, would you like to continue this?
  (Mr Forth) I suppose that I or we are in a rather odd position here because we are now participating in a process which was not of our making, not of our wish, but in which we find ourselves to be a player. That, I think, explains what still to some people seems to be a bit mysterious, that the Conservatives were able to cling so happily to the hereditary principle for so long but now abandon it apparently with such ease.

  282. Some people have found it a kind of mystery.
  (Mr Forth) The mystery is fairly easily explained, Chairman. My own view was that the House of Lords was able to fulfil its historic and indeed current role very effectively, precisely because of the independence and non-elected element of the hereditaries and then, since the Fifties, the lifers. As soon as the Government took it upon itself, first to challenge and then to dismantle that, certainly by removing the bulk of the hereditaries, the Government posed itself and all of us with a problem. That problem was: how can you define or redefine the role, then the composition and so on, of the upper chamber in that post-hereditary era? That is now what we are dealing with. It is in that sense that we have found it I think perhaps surprisingly easy to move from the hereditary era through the life era into the elected era, precisely because, if one accepts that there has to be a key role for an upper house in a bicameral system, then one wishes to see that upper house having a relative and, I would like to think, powerful and effective role. Against that, one then asks onself about he relativity between the upper house and the Commons, something that Mark has just touched on. I am afraid I start from a rather pessimistic view of the current and I suspect future role of the House of Commons. In a sense I take my queue from the founding fathers in the United States who, it now turns out, saw far more clearly 200 years ago what has taken us rather a longer time to rumble and that is that if you have an executive which is born of, is the creature of and the creation of the part of the legislature, it might not be too surprising if, when the day comes when you have a ruthless and determined executive, the relationship between the executive and the legislature which gave it birth and to which it in turn theoretically accounts gets out of kilter. It is in that sense that I believe the upper house is that much more crucial for our concept of overall parliamentary accountability and it is also in that sense that I am personally very relaxed about a redefinition of the role of the Commons vis-a"-vis the Lords, or whatever we choose to call it. I am very relaxed about parity or even something other than parity. I can contemplate a gridlock with equanimity and I now see the upper house as being our best hope for effective scrutiny and accountability of the government of the day because in the end, once the executive diminishes the role of the body from which it emerges so far that scrutiny and accountability become difficult to perceive, we are left looking at the upper house. I am optimistic about that. I am rather up beat about it. I think we now therefore have a unique opportunity to look at these issues in the round. Yes, of course we should look at the Commons and the relationship between executive and legislature. I would like to think we could restore that balance. But I would prefer, I think, almost that we look an effective upper house to give us what we must want.

  283. Could I tease out two or three bits of that before we move to Fiona? From what you say, and it has been fascinating to listen to it, I sense, first of all, that you have given up on the Commons. The idea that the Commons is somehow reformable is not on your agenda any more, is it?
  (Mr Forth) Under the present government, yes, because I detect that the attitude of government ministers now is a one-way street. I cannot see, even with the stout efforts of the present Leader of House, that the Government as a whole is going to wind that particular mechanism backwards. Whether or not any new government of another party were prepared to return things to the status quo ante, I cannot say. Of course in theory nothing in this parliament of ours is irreversible, even if we ended up with a written constitution. The American Constitution can, after all, happily, and with some difficulty, be amended. Because it is Lords reform on which we are all concentrating now, and because we are where we are with the so-called modernisation process in the Commons, I think it is proper to look to Lords reform to give us that real accountability which, for the time being and for the foreseeable future for the life of me I cannot see occurring in the Commons.

  284. I am not disputing it. I am just trying to outline it because again it is quite a normal way of approaching it and, let us be honest, to say that in our system the Commons cannot actually be an effective chamber on an executive because that is not how we do it, and therefore, the Lords has to do it. That is what is quite different from not only the Government's approach but I think the Royal Commission's approach as well. Is not the logic, though, of what you are arguing—and it is fascinating to watch the rushing of Conservative argument on these matters—that it really means the separation of powers properly.
  (Mr Forth) Many could argue that and the Founding Fathers certainly did, and maybe we ought to be looking at that in a different context. Ideally of course what we should be saying, and maybe your Committee should be the one to say it is: can we really proceed sensibly with Lords reform in isolation? Mark has suggested, and others have said and I agree with them, that it should not be in isolation from looking at what the Commons is doing and the relationship between the Commons and the executive in the Lords. Ideally we should be looking at all of these things. The Government's White Paper does not do that, sadly and regrettably. There is an argument beyond that that says, "Hold on a minute! Is that going to solve the problem, even going that far? Should we not be doing what the United States had the privilege of doing 200 and something years ago and looking at the whole thing afresh?" I think that is probably asking a bit much of all of us right now. It may be, therefore, that what we should do is to seize the opportunity of looking again at the role principally of the upper house but in relationship to the Commons and that crucial triangular relationship of the two houses of the legislature and the executive, to see if we can make something of that before we feel impelled to go forward to a full-blown review and an ultimate separation of powers. But I do not see why we should ever rule that out. We are, after all, renowned, I think rightly, for over a period of centuries the flexibility and fluidity of our parliamentary and governance arrangements. I do not see why that should come to an end now.

  285. I think that it is extraordinarily interesting to have a senior Conservative politician contemplating a future in which the powers are separated. We are into radical territory. Just to notch the final bit of what you said, I thought it was a very interesting phrase about contemplating gridlock with equanimity, as every other witness that we have had has contemplated gridlock with horror. I think we are particularly interested in the idea of learning to live with a system where gridlock can happen, as you would argue, and be beneficial. That is something I think colleagues may want to take up. We are grateful for that for the time being. Fiona, do you want to add something on this?
  (Fiona Mactaggart) Yes. I am coming from the position of someone who wants good legislation - I am not sure we are as good at that as we ought to be—who wants an accountable executive, and who believes fundamentally that the people are the best way of choosing legislators and of holding the executive to account through elected representatives. That is where I start from. You also asked me to comment on where we are. I think the very important thing in this debate is for people to stop peddling their pet schemes and to look for a solution. One of the things that has typified debate on constitutional issues in Britain is that reform has foundered on the rocks of not achieving perfection and therefore we will not do anything. I feel a responsibility in the present circumstances to try to find where there is a centre of gravity, where there is a view which will move the constitution in the direction that I seek, but not necessarily deliver my pet or perfect solution. I think that there are some characteristics which I find essential in a second chamber. The fundamental roles are well expressed in many ways in Wakeham and in the White Paper. If one looks at them together, I think it is a revising deliberative chamber which should carry a role in scrutiny and holding the executive to account. That requires a chamber which is prepared to take a rather longer view than the House of Commons tends to; its passion is about delivery of a manifesto on which its members have been elected, which delivers a kind of tribal politics. I would like to see a method of election and membership which reduces the tribalism, a second chamber which makes it more deliberative, which means that there is more compromise and sharing of view across party and other divisions; where an independent cast of mind is seen as the norm; that the power of the whips is reduced; that the goal of the second chamber as a potential springboard for a political career should be severely limited. I think Wakeham is absolutely right about those kinds of things. If we were to adopt those principles, I believe that there is a possibility of building a consensus for a system which is probably nobody's perfect system but which includes a very substantial elected element, (for me the bottom limit is really half) it would also include independent appointments, and it might include a very small number of party appointments, (whose role is the one that I describe in the paper I have given to the committee), working in a complementary fashion to the Commons.

  286. Thanks for that. What is interesting about that, if people want to explore it, is that again you are regarded as being on the radical side of this argument in terms of election, but in fact you do not go forth with Eric, do you, on this? The Forth position is that we basically want a bolshie second chamber to cause trouble for the executive all over the place, and you want one which is decent, civilized, well behaved and knows its place.
  (Fiona Mactaggart) That is Mr Forth's position this week but I have to remind the Committee that because he is on the Front Bench of his party, his position changes. He has made a joke about this himself, so I do not think I am breaking any confidences here. His position changes with the wind, frankly. Mine has not. What I am saying is that we need to adapt. The way we do our constitution in Britain is not by writing a constitution; it is actually by saying, "Let's find a way to move forward with a settled will". I am actually rather tempted by a written constitution, but I think that is a bit revolutionary at present.

  287. You see the point in saying that there are people, and we have asked you because you are free and radical thinkers on these matters, and yet it turns out that you have fundamentally different conceptions of what this second chamber is going to be all about.
  (Fiona Mactaggart) I think that Eric Forth believes that the second chamber is about giving his party advantage. If I might be naughty, whenever he has spoken on this subject, it has been very much, "I am speaking for my party" kind of thing, and that is one of the reasons why he has not actually been able to say what he thinks. I am speaking from a position of someone who has thought about this issue before I became a Member of Parliament, who actually thinks that what we need to do is to try to establish a way of going about the second chamber where the fundamental issue is the national advantage. I am sure that Mr Forth would not have had this view had his party been in power. Indeed, when it was, he did not.

  288. I know that Mark wants to come in and I will let him and then I will ask Kevin.
  (Mr Fisher) I think it maybe we are slightly pushing the envelope of distinctions between Fiona's position and Eric's in that the difference between a responsible second chamber, one that is not obstructive, and one that is obstructive is a nice one and it varies from case to case on individual issues or pieces of legislation. The one difference between an independent chamber and one that is not compliant has the same nice or rather important nuance. I do not think we will do anything for the overall problem, which I suspect all three of us share that Parliament has been failing in recent years, it is said for the last 50 years. I think it goes back to the Irish home rule question when the government, for very good reasons, got control of the business of the House and has run everything in the House ever since. We have been, not as a result as a Parliament balancing in the way that we operate the powers of the executive, not that the executive has become over-mighty, but that Parliament has become very confused about its identity. I think everything that Fiona said about deliberative, more independent, better at scrutiny, less in awe of the whips leads to what is undoubtedly an undercurrent on my evidence of beliefs, that there should be a separation not of powers but of responsibilities, that until Parliament sees that it has a totally different role to that of government, we are not going to get either the Lords right or the government performing as well as it could, or the Commons right. It is not so much a separation of powers but a separation of identity and responsibility. Again, I think that if we had teased out the position that responsibility is distinct from power, including the second chamber and the government, then a lot of these problems would have slipped into place.

Kevin Brennan

  289. Perhaps, in relation to your earlier remarks, we should not describe it as the Forth position but perhaps the Forth way might be the appropriate terminology. Can I turn to Mark first and put a number of points to you in one question. I am sorry to do it this way but I am tyring to move things on bit quicker. First of all, are you not really erecting a smokescreen when you start talking about the remit? Is there not a huge consensus here that the House of Lords' powers, remit, function, responsibility, whatever you want to call it, should remain pretty much what they are now and that no one seems to be suggesting very radical changes to the sort of role that the House of Lords should play—perhaps tootling around with it but no radical changes? That is the first point. Really what you are interested in is an elected second house and in your submission it seems to be that there is a slight problem: you are in favour of a one hundred per cent elected second chamber by a fairer system of election than is used in the House of Commons because it would produce a more proportional result and yet, you are saying that the Salisbury Convention should be entrenched. By what democratic principle could you insist upon the second chamber giving way to the manifesto proposals of the largest party elected on a minority vote in the first chamber when they had later been elected by a fairer system and reflect better the wishes of the people in a more contemporary sense? How on earth can you square that illogicality? The final part of it is: Lord Wakeham has said that your sort of second chamber would consist of the fourth eleven: people who could not get into the House of Commons, could not get into the European Parliament, could not get into the regional and national assemblies, and they would be pretty low calibre. How do you answer that?
  (Mr Fisher) I disagree with you that one electoral system is fairer than another. They are different and they have different characteristics. The single member constituency and proportional representation in its many forms have all got certain advantages and certain disadvantages and yet they result in different conclusions. To say that one is more democratic or fairer than another I think is actually unprovable and not interesting, and I do not agree with you on that. The reason is that in the final analysis, after as strong a scrutiny and amendment process in both Houses as possible, and any government would benefit from that rigour of scrutiny which it is not getting at the moment - and most notably whole chunks of legislation go completely undebated and unamended under the present system—the people who benefit are the government. The thing that in my view gives the Commons a different and crucial role is that it is the house of the executive; it is the house in which the government, the Prime Minister, is located. That is relatively new. In the last 50 years that has been the case. It undoubtedly is the case now. Never since Alec Douglas-Home can we conceive of a second chamber heading a government. I want to solidify that and concentrate it by removing all the lists from the second chamber and making it purely a house of objective scrutiny, as far as that is possible, shaped and coloured by party ideologies and positions, having as pure a scrutiny role as you can have but in doing that, by locating the executive, which is what we have voted for on a manifesto at a general election. If they have a mandate, then I think the executive has always, in the end, to have its way. It is very important for it and for the country that it is vigorously and toughly, not compliantly, scrutinised by both houses.

  290. Could I put to Eric Forth—and we have discussed the Forth way—that in fact, rather than gamekeepers turned poachers, perhaps as you might describe what happened with the Tory Party proposals, it is a case of dukes turned to democrats and that actually what you are proposing in that your proposals is yet another smokescreen because the Conservative proposals, as we have seen them so far, would make it possible to have the kind of elected dictatorship that everybody pretty much has been saying that we do not want to have if you have an elected second chamber; namely, your proposals say that 80 per cent of members of the second chamber should be elected in thirds by first-past-the-post from county seats for the 20 per cent elected element. It is quite conceivable, in fact extremely likely, that from time to time under those proposals both Houses would be dominated and have an overall majority from the a second party, ensuring the kind of elected dictatorship that we people fear. What is your answer to that? Is that not the antithesis of what you are trying to achieve in tyring to ensure a better separation of powers?
  (Mr Forth) No. If you look at the United States, which I do frequently and rather than just look at it, I go to it, and I even took the trouble to marry an American just to cement the relationship —

  291. That is something we have in common.
  (Mr Forth) It is very interesting that here you have two chambers with more or less co-equal powers; there you have the potential for gridlock but a mechanism by which to resolve it. There you had quite recently the albeit rare phenomenon of one member crossing the floor of the Senate and changing the balance of the Senate and therefore the balance of the whole political mechanism of the United States. So I do not think we need to get too hung up on the idea that maybe under the dispensation you have just described, perfectly accurately, power might well rest with the same party in both cambers for a period of time, and I do not think that that should be seen as being any sort of disaster: (a) it would be the will of the people; and (b) it could be corrected fairly soon after by the mechanism that does exist.

  292. I put to you that it would not be the will of the people at all, would it? It would be through a very careful, manufactured, gerrymandered electoral system, which is what is in your proposals to ensure that that could happen from time to time: namely this very artificial thing of actually increasing the size of first-past-the-post seats in order to make them even less proportional in the outcome for the way people vote for parties than it is under the system for the House of Commons?
  (Mr Forth) That is one way of looking at it. That is slightly pejorative but there is nothing wrong with that. We live in a pejorative world. Of course any first-past-the-post system will tend to give a different result or outcome than any one of the 30 or so proportional systems on offer at any one time. I do not think we want to get too hung up on that. Remember, underlying everything that we are saying—we the Conservative Party, my Leader and so on - what we have said is that this matter should be taken forward by a joint committee of both houses. What we are saying is that these are our proposals at this stage but they are there for discussion and, dare I say it, negotiation in the context of a joint committee. So you are not going to nail me to the wall on any one of these proposals. What we are saying is that we have set out a broad sense of direction: yes, be believe the upper house should be substantially elected; yes, we believe that there should be mechanisms in place which allow it or ensure that it is as far as possible independent and robust and not subject to patronage and so on. Now, these are perfect and they can all be looked at and they can all be altered, perhaps even quite significantly, but one can see the direction in which we believe we have to move in order to restore vigour and vitality to our parliamentary system.
  (Mr Fisher) Chairman, I am very conscious that I did not answer Kevin's second question and I think it is an important one about the fourth eleven, important particularly, since in his very elegant and eloquent speech, Lord Jenkins made exactly this point and the quality of his speech gave extra weight to it, about whether anybody who is not seeking ministerial office is somehow in the fourth eleven. I think manifestly that is not true. Some of them, the most distinguished parliamentarians, are the ones who make the most contribution and who have not been seeking ministerial office in the smaller parties. We had Mr Martin Bell in the last Parliament. Indeed, many MPs who come late in life have no hope of building up enough career years to become a minister but make a very valid contribution. The idea Lord Jenkins was appearing to support, that it would only attract people of quality because they eventually hope that their party will be in power and they will become ministers, is wholly wrong. It sees its place solely as a house of the executive. I think there is both a very distinguished and important role for people coming into this place as parliamentarians and scrutineers that is not in competition for both fine careers and ambitions, but certainly the one is not the fourth eleven to the other.

  Chairman: Thank you for that.

Mr Wright

  293. This is very interesting. I think we ought to concentrate on what was perceived to be the numbers to try to get a consensus. Certainly I am interested in Mark's contribution and he said we should sort out the responsibilities in the first instance. To get through this stage, at some point we have to reach a consensus in terms of numbers. I think everybody I have spoken to considers that there should be a substantial number that would be directly elected. Would you perceive, each of you, that anything over 50 per cent would be acceptable or would you stick to the 100 per cent, for instance, or would you be able to negotiate on that basis?
  (Fiona Mactaggart) I was the originator of an Early Day Motion which has attracted support from all sides of the House and very substantial support from Labour members, which calls for a wholly or substantially elected House. I have canvassed the signatories to see if they are happy for me to say that that means at least half, and they are. I would prefer something larger, but I think we have to be very serious here. There is a risk of getting no reform of the second chamber. I look to this Committee to ensure that that risk is avoided and to play a significant role in ensuring that. It seems to me that if there is a principle about an elected proportion, after 100 per cent, the next place where you could say that there might be a point of principle is 50 per cent, frankly, in that that means that at least half is elected, but it also means, for those who feel, I think wrongly - I think the White Paper is wrong on this—that the feature which is most likely to lead to a conflict between the chambers is the proportion of the elected members. Those who have that anxiety can be reassured by the fact that not more than half of them is elected. I have to say that one of the very interesting things is that not only people who have signed the Early Day Motion that I put down feel that, but also people whose preferred solution is, for example, a single chamber. Many of them have said to me, "But actually, if we have to reform the Lords, what we think is that there should be at least half of them elected". I think that is the centre of gravity that we should be building on.
  (Mr Forth) That sounds a bit tame to me. I do not think "substantial" is half at all. We have said 80 per cent and although I would imagine that in the cause of progress that would necessarily be negotiable, I think I would be very reluctant personally to go much under two-thirds as a meaningful elected proportion. Having put a lot of our eggs in the democratic accountability elected basket, I think that to go much below two-thirds would start to look just a bit like a sell-out. Fifty per cent does not strike me as keeping faith, having set out the democratic stall. I think it might also give rise to rather a lot of difficulties, not just in terms of the overall size of the chamber, and again there seems to be a pretty substantial consensus that everybody has in their minds a chamber of, let us say, 300 or 400 rather than 700 or 800 or even more, and I think there are difficulties once you are talking 50:50. I suspect that begins to drive the number up again inexorably, which I do not think would be a good idea. If you want to pin us down here today to figures, then I will say that if you end up not liking my 80 per cent, I will give you two-thirds, but I am not prepared to go much further than that.

Chairman

  294. In the spirit of compromise you are bringing to the table.
  (Mr Forth) This is me compromising!

Mr Wright

  295. I must raise on that particular point the answer you gave to Mr Patrick Cormack some weeks ago when you said you were going to wait until at least we moved in that direction. To take it a stage further, and Mark has covered this point in the paper he submitted, some of my colleagues would also argue that a wholly elected or majority elected second chamber would affect the primacy of the Commons. Perhaps, Mark, you could cover that point?
  (Mr Fisher) I have already answered that in the address I gave. Primacy in the Commons is because it is the house of the executive. That is the further emphasised because, if you remove ministers from the second chamber, it becomes exclusively the house of government, scrutinised by its members quite rightly, but it is a fact that the Prime Minister and Ministers are located there that gives it primacy, rather than the method of election. To return to your earlier point, in this debate about percentages, the element that is never discussed, which strikes me as rather more important than members of the body, is the role of the electorate in this. We are actually proposing that we are going to have to go, as members of political parties, on to the doorstep and say to our constituents, who are voting in far smaller numbers these days, unless we can change that, "Please go and vote next Thursday. We think that you ought to have the right to vote for at least X per cent". They will say, "Hold on, we elect the whole of the House of Commons. If you are saying that we have a democratic body and we have the right to elect them, why are you saying that there are certain people we cannot elect, that we have no right to have a say and that somebody else should have a say?" I think it is going to be quite difficult for us to canvas and campaign on that basis, encouraging people to vote and saying, "But of course not for everybody because we actually are wiser than you", or, "a commission we have set up is wiser than you and you can only have a part say in it".

Chairman

  296. Is not the election on a party list system just the same as appointment?
  (Mr Fisher) I think it is an horrific part of the system. I really do not approve of that, particularly with the closed list you had at the last European election. I thought it was a complete disgrace and ended with great unhappiness all round. I do not think there were may people who would support that closed party list now. Can I just say one thing on the percentages? I agree with Eric that it is a strange definition of a half-full and half-empty bottle to say that it is substantially full of a half empty and a half full bottle. It is half full and it is certainly better than the sort of figures that have been talked about in the White Paper, but nobody can say that half is really substantial, except in the relative terms that it is more substantial than 20 or 25 per cent. Fifty per cent is an absolute minimum and if this is a process which will move inexorably, in my view, towards democracy and 100 per cent elected, then you have got to get well over 50 per cent for the remaining patronage element to eventually over ten or fourteen years wither. I think if we have got two-thirds or 70 per cent or 75 per cent or 80 per cent, as the Conservatives suggest, then that remaining rump would soon appear a rump and it would eventually wither. You would finally achieve democracy. But this is a process and we would not have had this discussion a month ago before I think the Conservatives changed the whole nature of this debate by raising our ambitions. Whereas I appreciate Fiona's pragmatism and desire to get a solution, the potential solutions have changed very much since the new benchmark that the Conservative Party has put in. I think they are to be congratulated on it.
  (Mr Forth) Can I just pick up this phrase "the primacy of the Commons"? Can I make a plea that your Committee and others start to use the phrase "the primacy of the government in the Commons" or "the primacy of the Commons dominated by the government". I think that would be much more transparent and honest. This fiction that the Commons has primacy really, sadly, is now a fiction.

Annette Brooke

  297. I want to return to voting systems for a moment. I am not sure that we actually heard from Mark exactly what he favours. You hinted at that. Do you think, in order to achieve the objectives of neutrality and good scrutiny, that in fact a form of proportionalism would actually be far better than traditional voting systems?
  (Mr Fisher) Yes, I do—and going back to Kevin's point—not because it is a fairer system. I think it is a more appropriate system for the sort of chamber that I envisage the second chamber to be, because it will not be a chamber in which the people elected, or indeed appointed, certainly even the elected members, will be representing individual constituents and their concerns. I hope that it is a very much smaller chamber with, say, a maximum of about 300 members. I think that the figures in the White paper are ludicrous. The idea that you can seriously be considering a 700 member sort of flabby, mammoth of a chamber is ridiculous. It is an embarrassment. We need smaller chambers in both houses of about 300 or so. They, as Fiona quite rightly said, have a much more discursive and much wider remit, looking at things independently in the long term, and therefore feeding from an area of the country, a wider constituency, the need for a member to represent and know the intimacies and the nuances for particular constituents in those constituencies no longer would exist. Therefore, a proportionate system is very appropriate for that wider and bigger constituency, whereas for us when we are actually representing individual constituents, it is important that they should be small constituencies so we really have an intimate relationship, though I think probably not as small as they are at the moment. There are many too many of us in our chamber to my mind.

  298. That is obviously very important in relation to the functions of the House, whether or not there is a direct relationship to their constituencies. Can I ask Mr Forth to comment?
  (Mr Forth) I would be interested to hear from Scottish colleagues whether there is this great conflict between the people that members of the Scottish Parliament represent over the tops of or underneath their Westminster colleagues. Admittedly there is a separation of powers to some extent but there are areas in which they overlap. I am completely against proportional representation at any time or in any form for any purpose whatsoever. I think it is a wicked system and one that should be avoided. I see no need that our new, elected, effective, powerful upper chamber should be elected other than by a first-past-the-post system, but I think it would be ameliorated by the fact I would envisage large multi-member constituencies with them being elected at different times, and therefore the representation element would be completely different and distinctive in the House of Commons. Again, taking the American model but not just it, other models around the world, there does not seem to be any great insuperable difficulty in having an elected upper chamber and an elected lower chamber. The Australians, Americans and many others do it. I do not see that as a difficulty, but I do see that there are great opportunities in having a substantially elected upper chamber on a different basis, on a different electoral cycle, with different constituencies, which would therefore give us the opportunity for that more fluid political system or parliamentary system that I think would be beneficial.

  299. Before moving on to Fiona, as there is a move towards consensus in terms of achieving objectives, which would be more important to you, the 80 per cent elected or the voting system, if you were in a negotiating position?
  (Mr Forth) For me it would be the voting system. I think I personally would be a lot more flexible on the percentage than I would be on the method of election. That is a personal view.


 
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