Memorandum by Austin Mitchell MP (LR 34)
SECOND CHAMBER NOT SECOND BEST
The end of the provisional settlement, the inadequacy
of the Wakeham proposals and the hostile reaction to the Government's
self-serving proposals, combine to provide the opportunity for
a complete new beginning. We can now devise from scratch a new
Second Chamber (called the Senate or, preferably, the Legislative
Council) to combine different methods of selecting members and
take on new functions so as to give Britain the kind of Second
Chamber it needs.
The pressing needs are:
(1) A check on the overweening power of the
Executive. The elective dictatorship has now become Presidential.
The President/CEO controls the legislative through party majority,
party loyalty and career politics, which condition people to creeping
as a way of climbing. Whatever the Executive wants it gets and
none of the instruments of control; questions; debates; select
committees or scrutiny of legislation now provide effective checks.
The Executive Rules. Not OK.
(2) An effective Second Chamber needs to
apply a different set of minds, eyes and backgrounds to a second
scrutiny, providing a second set of opinions and a second forum
of debate so as to bring considerations wider than the obsessive
political motivation of the Commons into play. The Commons is
the stage for custard pie politics and the four year election
campaigns. The Second Chamber needs to be at a distance from all
this, less political, harder working, more considered.
(3) The ability to take on functions the
Commons either does badly or isn't able to do at all because of
the heavy pressure of business. The Commons are reforming themselves
but the huge pressures of serving a constituency, acting as legislator
and party politician, pursuing a political career and contributing
to the wider public debate inhibit what MPs can do. It is becoming
impossible for dutiful MPs to take on extra burdens. The Commons
need help and an alleviation of their burden, though of course
none of this is an argument against further reform of the Commons
which needs to go on apace if the Commons are to play a proper
part in the new bi-cameralism.
Help can come from regional assemblies (Britain
has fewer legislators per capita than most other systemsparticularly
federal ones). Yet in the immediate future only a re-invigorated
Second Chamber can come to the rescue. It can take on functions
such as pre-legislative consultation offering opportunities to
make representations and hold hearings on all major legislation;
legislative review after legislation has been in force for two
years; more specialised committee enquiries; or less political
or more serious issues, adding all this to the detailed consideration
it already gives.
(4) A focus and access point for the UK's
To do these jobs the new Legislative Council
(Leg Co) must have a legitimate and generally accepted base to
rest on. Once the traditional base (initially hereditary, then
membership of the peerage) has gone, the only available alternative
in a democracy is election. Initially, like the Government but
for different reasons, I suggested an elected minority on the
grounds that a wholly elected chamber would be just like us, bringing
in the same kind of people on the same party basis and inevitably
challenging the First Chamber.
I have now changed my mind. Election is the
only legitimate base for the majority of members but is not incompatible
with bringing in other members by other means. Starting from scratch
allows us to get the best of all worlds so why not seize it? I
therefore suggest a Chamber constituted the following bases:
(i) 500 members regarded as full time and
paid accordingly. The exact number can be varied up or down but
we need a considerable expansion of Britain's legislative workforce.
(ii) 60 per cent (300 members) elected on
a regional basis. If there were a functioning structure of regional
assemblies and governments they could be indirectly elected, as
is the case in several other system. Since there isn't, direct
elections by regions on an STV basis for eight years with half
up for re-election every four years, is the best alternative.
It is important that members be elected by a different system
to the Commons. 300 would give the following distribution: Scotland
27, Wales 15, N Ireland 8, Eastern 27, E Midlands 22, London 34,
NE 13, NW 35, SE 41, SW 25, W Midlands 27, Yorks 26.
(iii) 100 hundred members appointed on a
non-party basis by an Independent Commission mandated to select
on grounds of quality, diversity, ability to contribute and independence
so as to bring in people of ability and standing, who have not
followed the party/election path and are not party ladder climbers.
All with eight year terms.
(iv) 20 members nominated by major interest
groups such as the Churches, the TUC, CBI, Universities, Education,
the voluntary sector and designated professional bodies. Four
year terms renewable.
(v) 80 members nominated by the parties.
Modern politics requires some ability to nominate but this section
is essentially intended to allow parties to carry out their business
in the Chamber whether as ministers or shadows. It should not
allow the Leg Co to be a dumping ground for political hacks or
the disgraceful trading of parliamentary seats for titles, which
happened at the last two elections. Four year terms renewed after
each General Election.
(vi) Because of the need for experience,
proven quality and a different membership to the career politicians
who dominate the Commons I suggest a minimum age for membership
and 45 seems appropriate. This would prevent the Leg Co becoming
a springboard into the Commons as the European Parliament has
(vii) Powers. These should be maximised:
(a) Draft legislation should be introduced
first in the Leg Co unless designated as urgent. Each Bill should
be advertised inviting representations to the Leg Co committee
hearing it in writing, the best then being heard by the Committee.
(b) Some power of delay is necessary
to make the Executive think again. A year is excessive. Any Leg
Co amendment of legislation passed by the Commons should go back
to the Commons. If it rejects the Leg Co view there should be
a compulsory and public conference. If no agreement is reached
the Leg Co should withdraw its opposition.
(c) Legislation designed as "constitutional"
by an independent Commission (perhaps the Electoral Commission)
should be subject to a longer delaying power of one or two years
with the Leg Co having power to require a referendum if it is
unable to assent.
(d) Membership of Leg Co committees should
be nominated by a committee representative only of the independent
members with Chairs elected by secret ballot of the whole House.
(e) There should be provision for joint
committee meetings of both Houses and special committees including
members of both. Ministers in both Houses should be able to contribute
to committees of the other and ministers in the Commons should
be available to answer in the Chamber of the Leg Co.
(f) The question system presently used
by the Lords should be retained since it allows more serious consideration
than Commons' questions.
A broad proposal like this can't resolve every
problem or deal with every question. It does, however, provide
a firm basis for reform well calculated to give us a Second Chamber
fit for use, and able to make a serious contribution to better
governance as well as remedying some of the faults of the existing
system. Achieving that requires us to think more boldly than has
been the case up to now.