Examination of Witness (Questions 400
THURSDAY 24 JANUARY 2002
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 Whipsyou tell me
and I accept it because you tell mewas 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
(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
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!
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
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
(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
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
(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 shortfar shortof 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?
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
(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 issuehow many elected is
the big issueand 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.