Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 420 - 439)

THURSDAY 24 JANUARY 2002

THE RT HON THE LORD IRVINE OF LAIRG, QC

  420. You are in denial.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am not in denial. I believe that if there were a free vote of the Parliamentary Labour Party on the focus of attention, ie, whether it should be all nominated or all elected and that were the only choice, just to cut out all the cackle about a hybrid chamber, my prediction would be that—and I am willing to lose short bets—that all nominated would win because I think the more people think about this, the more they become concerned that focusing on this single elected percentage issue is really playing with some well worked out conventions between the Commons and Lords and the superiority of the Commons. What an advantage it is to know that one House of Parliament will always ultimately be entitled to have its way.

  421. I gather from that that you are willing to bet Bolton Wanderers are destined to win the League this year.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I thought Spurs did quite well last night!

  422. Let me turn to something else—your disagreement about what is shown in the Parliamentary groups. If a secret ballot among these members were to produce evidence that they wanted something under 50 per cent, would you accept that?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I do not think I would be all that keen on a secret ballot really. If you were talking about a ballot in which how everyone voted could be seen, that might be more instructive.

Chairman

  423. Why would you favour that method?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am not favouring it as a method, I am playing around with an argument. All I am really saying is that there has been a large number of people who obviously believe in all elected who have written in to say so and, as I say, they are self-selecting. I believe that there are very, very many people in both Parties who do not begin to believe in a majority elected. Do you know that the overwhelming view of the Conservative Party in the Lords is opposed to the Government's proposals? I believe—but it is possible that you know more about this than I do—that there is an enormous opposition in the Conservative Party to Iain Duncan Smith's proposals and that they are largely seen as a tactical device to wrong-foot the Government and to embarrass the Government in this issue of elected, but I think there is quite a lot of games-playing going on.

  Chairman: Thank you for that. Annette?

Annette Brooke

  424. If I could just follow on. If we stay stuck in the groove of at the moment 20 per cent elected, perhaps we could just look at how the rest should be nominated. Certainly I have felt an overwhelming view against the idea of having such a large proportion appointed on a political basis and I think the press has made hay with the phrase "Tony's cronies". How do you feel about that in terms of legitimacy and the implication that the House of Lords is working so well?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) First of all, is it really correct to make the point about Tony's cronies? Let me just answer the point fairly. If we are talking about a House ultimately of 600, and we are talking of 120 elected and we are talking of 120 independent, and we are talking about the balance being nominated with the numbers of seats in the Lords which go to each party being determined by the new statutory Appointments Commission in accordance with statutory criteria, what we have to realise is that such a scheme—which is the White Paper scheme—does signal a huge decrease in the Prime Minister's powers of patronage. He will lose all rights over the independent members, that is number one. He will lose all rights over the nominations of other parties. Most important of all, he will lose all power over how many nominations his party or any other party may make. Also, because of the numbers game, which I shall not bore you about but which I set out in my speech, there is precious little scope in the transition period, until you get the House down to a size of 600—some people might think 600 is too large but until you get it down to 600—there is precious little scope for making new Peers by any party. I really do not think the charge of Tony's cronies actually works but the short answer to your question is that the political parties would nominate in relation to the balance, also their current powers of nomination would be limited because of numbers, 240 having gone to elected and independent.

  425. Lord Wakeham when he gave evidence to us actually said that he thought that was one of the worst proposals in the White Paper in terms of where it differed from the Royal Commission. Can you comment on why you moved such a way away from the Royal Commission?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes, I certainly can. What Lord Wakeham and his Royal Commission felt was that the Appointments Commission should select the party nominees. Now we took the view, and I think all parties actually would agree with this, that an Appointments Commission should no more decide who should represent a party in the Houses of Parliament, should no more decide that than an appointments committee should decide who wins in the short list for a constituency selection for membership of the House of Commons. We thought that was not one of the most politically switched on suggestions of the Wakeham Commission. I do completely recognise that party patronage is something which upsets people and, therefore, there are ways of looking at this. It would be possible to explore ways round this. One way round it might for example be—and this is just playing with numbers out of the air—suppose, for example that the Liberal Democrat party was entitled in a particular round let us say to five, then the leader of the Liberal Democrats could put forward ten in his order of priority on the basis, of course, that all who are being nominated would be acceptable as members of the House of Lords to the Liberal Democrat party and the Appointments Commission could make its own selection. In other words it could reorder the priorities, I think it would be pretty loathe to do so really, to substitute its judgment for the political party's judgment but that might give greater public confidence. You could have the proposition also that if somebody was being unfairly excluded from a particular list because his face did not fit at any particular time with the party—and we can all think of examples in the history of all political parties where people who have made a significant contribution to parliamentary life answer that description—you might give the Appointments Commission a power to add to the list. Then it would be a matter for the political party whether it gave that individual the whip but you could live with that and it would be pretty rare, but it would happen, but it would be perhaps reassuring to the public. I do have an open mind on that but I think really essentially the selection of people to represent a party in the Houses of Parliament must be made by the party in just the same way as the party must make the selection from a selection conference which will select someone who, if the electorate, agrees becomes an MP.

  426. I accept that your views are very immovable this afternoon.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am not immovable on anything. I am just telling you at present how it seems to me.

  427. Right. I have to say it seems to me, and to the general public, that when we look at these great nominations that it seems absolutely bizarre in this century to be talking about finding members for the second chamber in this way. You do not think that the more mechanical and contrived it becomes to nominate—and we heard quite a lot from Lord Stevenson earlier on which perhaps did not give great confidence in some respects.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Sorry, I am not familiar with his evidence, you will forgive me.

  428. Sorry about that. You do not think that just talking about the deals and so on is actually going to push the general public much more to a view towards a higher proportion of elected members in the second chamber if it is going to have legitimacy?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) No, I do not see that and in fact when you look at some of the opinion polls it is very striking that it depends what question you ask people. Looking at some of them together they support the proposition that the House of Lords should be much more elected and at the same time it should be less party political. Well, of course, there is nothing more political than a chamber which is 100 per cent elected. It is really quite extraordinary. Just as political parties select who stands for parliament and—unless there is a fantastic shift—certainly in safe seats it is known that when a political party selects it is selecting the next MP, I do not see any difference in that between the political party selecting who it wants to put forward to be a member of the Lords. If these procedures are to be improved I think actually it is a domestic matter for the political parties. The political parties could have different methods of selecting those who the party wants to go forward in the next list of nominations for membership of the Lords. It is almost a matter of domestic government for parties rather than anything else, as it seems to me.

  Annette Brooke: I think I will pass the bat.

Mr Prentice

  429. Lord Weatherill told us about 45 minutes ago that the Government's proposals, or we are, are collectively in a mess. You do not agree with him?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) That is like the prosecuting counsel who starts off by saying "you are guilty, are you not"?

  Mr Prentice: I put it to you—

  Chairman: M'lud.

Mr Prentice

  430.—that we are in a mess.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Not guilty, gov.

  431. It was a straightforward question.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) And it is a very straightforward answer.

  432. I do not know whether to call you Lord Chancellor or Derry, but—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am perfectly easy with either.

  433. But you are a product of patronage yourself, are you not?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) In what sense?

  434. You sit on the woolsack because of a decision by a certain TB, I suppose.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) And everyone who is a minister of the Government in the Lords is equally a product of the Prime Minister's decision who shall be a minister in his Government. The only difference between ministers who are in the Lords and ministers who are in the Commons, and there have to be a certain number of ministers in the Lords, is that they are chosen by the Prime Minister and the only difference is that MPs are elected and Peers are not, so the proposition is really a bit of a truism because you are just saying that Peers are not elected and MPs are elected and the Prime Minister chooses his Government.

  435. So no Appointments Commission to select future Lord Chancellors?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I do not think that is part of the current debate.

Chairman

  436. And there is no difference in legitimacy between ministers who are elected by an electorate and those who are appointed by a Prime Minister?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) If you accept, as I think is accepted, that the House of Lords as presently constituted is perfectly legitimate then equally every minister in the Lords, and not merely me, the Leader in the Lords and every Minister of State and junior minister in the Lords, is entirely legitimate. When you say should the Lord Chancellor be appointed by an Appointments Commission, that question has as much validity as the question should the Cabinet be chosen by an Appointments Commission or should all ministers be chosen by an Appointments Commission and that is not real world politics, frankly.

Mr Prentice

  437. You spoke earlier about periods of reflection and Robin when he came before the Committee last week—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Robin who?

  438. Robin Cook. He said that the Government was going to continue its search for a consensus and the centre of gravity. Given that you do not think we are in a mess and given your answers to questions that have been posed just reinforce the idea that you do not need to give at all,—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I have not said that at all. I have not said that at all.

  439. Let me come to the point.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) All I am saying is that in the current state of debate when you have had these very, very interesting debates in both Houses when an absolute multiplicity of inconsistent views have been expressed, and the consultation period is not at an end, I think it is far too early to start declaring that there is a mess. There are certain issues in political life about which everyone has an opinion—


 
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