Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 400 - 419)

THURSDAY 24 JANUARY 2002

THE RT HON THE LORD IRVINE OF LAIRG, QC

  400. And I did.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Congratulations.

  401. Thank you.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) In other words, the pressure of which you complain you resisted and so what I would regard as a thoroughly bad argument put by the Whips—you tell me and I accept it because you tell me—was not a good argument and did not prevail.

  402. It would be easier to resist and it would be easier for colleagues to resist if the House of Lords came with more legitimacy attached to it. That is the argument, is it not?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I do not accept that the House of Lords is illegitimate because of how it is composed. I do not believe that you can direct an intellectual argument based on what the Whips chose to say to you. I think their use of the argument of illegitimacy was wrong.

  403. I just wanted to map out some of the territory, if I may. The White Paper is called Completing the Reform
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) It is indeed.

  404. And yet when I read your speech in this impressive debate, as you describe it—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I thought both debates were impressive.

  405. Both debates were impressive and when I look at your speech in this impressive debate—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I agree that mine was not impressive!

  Chairman: I thought it was especially impressive.

  Gordon Prentice: Get to the point!

Chairman

  406. You say, and you are talking here about the elected element, that the 120 elected is simply the maximum we can contemplate today?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes.

  407. And then you say "after a period of years it will no doubt be right to revisit the composition issue".
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) That is exactly what I said.

  408. I am not sure how you can complete the reform and then re-visit it.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) That is a nice textual point. I can tell you why it was called Completing the Reform, and since nothing is ever complete and since history never ends and because we cannot bind our successors, I am ready to agree that it was not a perfect title, but what was meant by it was phase one and phase two. We have been arguing in the House of Lords it feels for an eternity, but in fact it is just about four and a bit years, about phase one and phase two, and phase one was to remove the hereditaries (and we succeeded in removing nine-tenths), and phase two was to complete reform in the current circumstances. We do not bind our successors and circumstances can change and all that, and I am happy to agree that we could have had a different title, but I do not accept that there is any incompatibility between the title and what I have just said when I explain that the history is that phase one was to be succeeded in this Parliament by phase two, and phase one plus phase two was completing the reform we had been talking about in the last Parliament. Of course, a subsequent generation can look at this. What I was basically saying to the Lords was, having regard to the rights of the existing life Peers, 120 is really the maximum that we can do today, and that is what I think. Life being what it is and since we all pass on to another place—

  409. Where do Lord Chancellors go?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg)—Higher even than the House of Lords, I think natural wastage will be about 18 a year and therefore there will be scope to consider greater elected, but I want to emphasise that I think that people who talk about a percentage elected as if it were a self-contained issue, as if it were an independent bidding process when anyone could have a view, are neglecting the broad ramifications of the whole issue, and I think the central one is the superiority of the House of Commons in order to avoid instability at the heart of our constitution and government. I have already made my point that I think those that believe that House of Lords reform is a suitable vehicle for weakening the power of the Executive are wrong.

  410. I am almost done teasing out the underlying principles here. In your speech in the Lords you say election is not the only route to legitimacy in our democracy, and you have spoken about that and I understand it. Why then have an elected element at all?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Absolutely, that is a fact that is entertained by a heck of a lot of people and that is one of the absolutely interesting things that is coming out of the interesting debate that we are now having. Let me just quote one or two people. What about Geoffrey Howe? ". . . what is my position? Despite the enthusiastic advocacy of those who take the opposite view, I have not been persuaded that this Chamber should contain any elected members. . . . we need to have people here who are truly independent and who are not dependent on the wishes of party masters . . ." St John Stevas says: "Let us consider the question of an elected or appointed chamber. There is something to be said for an elected chamber. There is something to be said for an appointed chamber. But for a partly elected, partly appointed chamber, which carries within itself a mass of contradictions, there is nothing to be said whatsoever. It is a hyphenated hybrid which will not be a permanent solution to our constitutional problem, but will lay out problems for the future." Roy Jenkins—

  411. We have read the debate. There are lots of people around who do not like the idea of an elected Chamber and they do not think it has got anything to do with democracy, but you have come forward with a proposal where you have said you do not think election is the only route to legitimacy in democracy —
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Correct.

  412. And then you have come forward with an elected element and I am wondering why you felt you had to do that?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I can tell you. If we did have a hybrid House, despite powerful objections to a hybrid House, then the position would be all the members, nominated or elected, would be legitimate; they would just represent different routes to legitimacy. The Royal Commission chaired by Lord Wakeham recommended in their option B, being the only option around which a majority consensus emerged because it was not a unanimous Royal Commission by any means, 87 elected. That Royal Commission said very, very, very strongly that they did think that a substantially elected Lords would imperil the stability of governmental arrangements. We took the view in the Committee that I described that if we were going to go, in principle, for some elected we should offer the largest number which was possible within current numbers, and that was 120, but the nominated would be as legitimate as the elected.

  413. The argument is that democracy is one route to legitimacy, but then if I read your speech in the debate further, you say in the point about having an elected element it is "the best way of ensuring that the nations and regions feel that they are properly represented in a reformed House". It is not because it is necessary to have a democratic element for legitimacy reasons, it is because we have got to represent the nations and the regions. Why can we not represent the nations and regions through an appointed House?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) First of all, the answer is of course you can, and that is why I have said that there is no necessity for there to be any elected, and that was why I was drawing your attention to the number of impressive people who have argued for precisely that. It is a mistake by those people who have said in their evidence to you that the elected will be there to make the House of Lords more legitimate, and they are departing, in saying that, from both the Royal Commission and from our White Paper. We made it abundantly plain that the inclusion of elected was not to make the House of Lords more legitimate. It was a convenient means of ensuring, in a rather southern dominated House of Lords, that people with regional experience would have a right via elections to be there in the numbers we proposed. Neither the Royal Commission nor the White Paper was proposing that they should be there in a representative capacity so as to be in a position to challenge MPs who represent their constituencies in the same parts of the country. The concept was not to add to the legitimacy of the House of Lords, which I would say would be of equal legitimacy were it to be fully nominated, but to ensure that there were people with real experience of the life and politics of the regions there. When you say is that absolutely necessary, could that not be achieved by an appointments system where that was a mandatory consideration for an Appointments Commission to have regard to, the answer is obviously yes.

  414. I am struck by these difficulties and even confusions of the argument but I just want to ask one final question. Gordon would say a final question which means he had two more, but this is a final question! You say again in your speech that the 120 elected element that you have proposed in the White Paper is "simply the maximum we can contemplate today", meaning that we might have more.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) It means that tomorrow we could contemplate more, yes, of course it means that.

  415. But we could not contemplate more to the point where they might imperil this delicate balance between the two Houses?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Absolutely not.

  416. How would we know when we have arrived at that point?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) That, as ever, is a question of judgment but it does seem to me that it would have to be something far short—far short—of 50 per cent because otherwise, inevitably, the authority of the House of Commons would be put at risk, I was interested to see that my colleague Robin Cook said in his evidence to you that it is not possible to strengthen the power of the House of Lords in relation to the Government without strengthening it in relation to the Commons. We must not be complacent that the House of Commons' superiority is given. The constitution will constantly shift and we need to ensure that we maintain the Commons position, we should not just assume it. I think Members of the House of Commons would want to bear that very, very carefully in mind. There is no doubt that at some point, and well beneath 50 per cent of elected, the dynamics of the relationship between the two chambers would alter.

  417. We do not know where the balance is but we know it has to be below 50 per cent?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) We could all trade numbers. I have not said below 50 per cent, I have said very substantially below 50 per cent.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. I think we have opened up some interesting topics. John?

Mr Lyons

  418. Good afternoon, Lord Chancellor. In your introduction you mentioned that some people were in denial. Is there not a danger that some people will think you are in denial of this centre of gravity you were talking about earlier on? What I am suggesting is that people in denial can be counselled. Is there nothing we can offer you to help you move away from 20 per cent?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) One thing that I am certainly not in denial of is a good argument, but when I said that people are in denial I really do think that was a perfectly proper use of that expression. I get the impression in this debate that people have really fastened on the big issue—how many elected is the big issue—and then it is a kind of bidding process, and then we look for the centre of gravity so the people who contribute to the debate are self-selecting and anyone who says 100 per cent is going to count more in relation to the centre of gravity than everyone else and then of course you get to a centre of gravity and, bingo, that is where the centre of the gravity is. I think that approach is being in denial of what I call the dynamic of the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I think with its present powers and functions the House of Lords adds value and does not prejudice the pre-eminence of the House of Commons. I say that at some point the claims for greater legitimacy, although that is not the rationale for putting the 120 elected there, will grow to the extent that the conventions which built up between the Commons and Lords attributable to the Lords being unelected will be subject to great pressure and the House of Commons and the stability of government will suffer.

  419. You would want to be seen as a person in the know, with his finger on the pulse, able to tell people what is happening. We have heard in evidence that the majority of the Conservative Party, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the majority of the Liberal Democrats would all favour somewhere in the region of 50 per cent or beyond. Do you not accept that that is overwhelming?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) No, I do not even believe it.


 
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