Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Mark Fisher MP (LR 37)

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  The aim of any reform of the second chamber should be to find ways of helping it to contribute more effectively to the prime roles of both Houses of Parliament; to hold the government to account; to scrutinise its legislation; and to act as the national forum for debate. There is widespread concern (the Liason Committee report, Shifting the Balance; the Hansard Society Commission, The Challenge for Parliament) that Parliament as a whole is not fulfilling the first two of these roles as effectively as it should.

  1.2  Any reform of the Second Chamber should therefore be considered alongside the reform of the House of Commons, which is currently taking place.

  1.3  As the Wakeham Commission (WC) said (para 8.12), the two Houses should be "complementary and mutually reinforcing", so any reform should strengthen the ways in which they compliment one another.

  1.4  Their complementary roles should, where possible, be distinct and should not duplicate one another. A good precedent is the different scrutiny to which each house subjects European legislation, the Lords' European Union Committee scrutinising a small (30-40) number of items in depth each year while the Commons Committee "rapidly sifts all proposals under the consideration of the Council of Ministers (usually about 400 a year)". [Hansard Society Commission (HSC 6.22, p75)]

  1.5  There are opportunities for the two houses to work more closely by means of Joint Committees.

  1.6  The overall aim should be to reform both Houses so that, together, they fulfil the functions of Parliament more effectively, particularly in relation to Government. If that is achieved it is likely that public confidence in our political institutions will be increased.

2.  THE REMIT OF THE SECOND CHAMBER: SCRUTINY

  2.1  The Second Chamber should be, above all else, a House of Scrutiny, building on and strengthening its existing work.

  2.2  The Hansard Society Commission has identified areas in which Parliamentary Scrutiny could be broader and more effective, (chapters 2 and 6).

  2.3  In particular the HSC identifies the growth of Ombudsmen (1.34) and of regulatory bodies (1.26) and believes that "Parliament needs to be at the apex of the network of regulatory bodies and alternative scrutiny mechanisms" (HSC 1.53, p13). Since the Commons has little spare capacity to take on new roles, these responsibilities should be assumed by a Second Chamber.

  2.4  The House of Lords has an excellent record in Select Committees which cut across Department responsibilities (European Union and Science and Technology). Consideration should be given to augmenting these with other Cross Departmental Committees (Equal Opportunities, Social Exclusion, Freedom of Information, The Green Environment, Urban Affairs and Human Rights).

  2.5  For some of these it would be appropriate to establish Joint Committees modelled on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

3.  REMIT: REVISING LEGISLATION

  3.1  The Second Chamber should have the responsibility to consider and the power to amend, Government legislation, but not to block or veto any legislation for which the Government has been given a mandate at the most recent General Election.

  3.2  Accordingly the present delaying power in relation to public, non-money bills should be fixed at 12 months.

  3.3  The Salisbury Convention should be entrenched and extended to all Government Bills that have been a manifesto commitment.

  3.4  The Second Chamber should undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of proposals (Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee).

  3.5  The Second Chamber should be able to debate, in Committee, those Statutory Instruments it deems to be of importance and to take evidence relating to them from outside bodies.

4.  REMIT: THE CONSTITUTION

  4.1  The Second Chamber should have a specific responsibility to be the guardian of the Constitution, by means of a Select Committee on the Constitution.

  4.2  The HSC identifies 15 pieces of constitutional legislation, which were introduced between 1997 and 2000. These and other relevant Acts should be monitored by the Second Chamber, which should also consider and report on new constitutional legislation or amendments to existing Acts.

  4.3  There should be a six-month period allowed for such consideration.

  4.4  A Select Committee on the Constitution should advise Parliament on other constitutional questions that arise out of legislation, common law or convention.

5.  MEMBERSHIP

  5.1  The membership should be wholly elected, on the principle that it is for the electorate to determine who sits in Parliament.

  5.2  Membership of the Second Chamber should disbar a person from being a Minister in the Government; this would reinforce the Second Chamber as a House of Scrutiny, by providing a degree of separation and independence from Government.

  5.3  It is sometimes argued that a House of Parliament which did not offer the opportunity to be a Minister would not affect candidates of calibre. There is no evidence for this. Many members of both present Houses do not seek Government Office but feel that they contribute fully to Parliamentary debate and scrutiny, eg MPs of all political parties with the exception of Labour and Conservative; Independent MPs; the majority of Life Peers.

  5.4  Members should be elected at the same time as European MPs, by the same system of election.

  5.5  Membership should be limited to 261; ie three times the number of UK MEPs.

  5.6  Members should be paid the same salary as the Members of the House of Commons and should receive travel and living expenses. Their office and secretarial allowances should be smaller to reflect the fact that members of the Second Chamber would not have constituency responsibilities.

  5.7  Qualifications and disqualifications should be in line with those set out in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, ie membership of the armed forces, police, judiciary, civil service, those under 21, aliens, bankrupts and those convicted of treason.

6.  PRIMACY OF THE COMMONS

  6.1  Far from the primacy of the Commons being threatened by these proposals it is strengthened, as the Commons becomes exclusively the House of the Executive.

  6.2  The Second Chamber gains a new authority from its democratic legitimacy but the clear separation of remit and powers (the House of Commons, to form the Government and the possessor of a democratic mandate to legislate; the Second Chamber, to scrutinise, monitor, amend and—within a tight limit—to delay) ensures that there can be no deadlock.

  6.3  It is right that the Executive should be able to get the legislation (as amended) that it was elected to enact subject only to sufficient delay to give it pause for consideration.

  6.4  It is also right that the Second Chamber should have new and wider responsibilities and should be the guardian of the Constitution. Its authority will come as much from the quality of its consideration and scrutiny, and its independence, as from its new democratic mandate.

  6.5  If it fulfils these responsibilities wisely, the second Chamber will acquire a confidence and will have a moral authority, which it will be hard for the Government in the Commons to ignore. As a result Parliament, reformed in both houses, will be in a position to do a better job of scrutinising the Executive and holding it to account.

Mark Fisher

January 2002



 
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