Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Mark Field MP (LR 39)

  Thank you for your letter of 21 November concerning proposals for the final stage of the reform of the House of Lords. I am disappointed that the Government has decided against establishing a Joint Committee of both Houses to examine these proposals in full but as requested I am providing a brief written submission in advance of your January meetings.

  I was elected for the first time in June 2001 for the Cities of London and Westminster constituency and as a result was not a parliamentarian when the first stage of the reform took effect. Nevertheless it seemed a disappointment to me that during the immediate aftermath of the 1997 General Election that a more forceful defence of the status quo was not made by members of the Commons, especially from the Conservative Party (of which I am a member). In my view the composition of the House of Lords was never a burning issue amongst the general public before May 1997 and indeed many non-politically partisan people to whom I spoke at that time felt that the hereditary aspect of the House of Lords had great advantages. It was widely felt that few peers had any real axe to grind and were accustomed to thinking in an inventive way on a wide range of subjects on which they may have had relatively little expertise at the outset. Above all they were considered as "experts in common sense" and these qualities seem now to be lacking within the political arena in an increasingly professionalised political class.

  In 1997 the entire political establishment seemed to be mesmerised by the modernisation agenda of the new Government. It is self-evident that had we started with a blank sheet of paper we would not have chosen a parliamentary system including 700 hereditary peers. Nor, however, in the modern world does the idea of prime ministerial patronage (whether directly or via an "independent" Appointments Committee) appear supportable. The fact is, of course, that in considering reform this country does not start with a blank sheet of paper, but with a House of Lords that has evolved gradually since the thirteenth century. Unlike many of our European neighbours, most of which have either been ruled or overrun by dictatorships over the past sixty years, we have not been forced by events to re-write from first principles our political constitution.

  Nevertheless, I recognise with regret that the era of hereditary peers has now come to an end and the continued involvement of this rump of ninety-two is unsustainable. However, I now firmly support an entirely elected second chamber, and believe it would be intolerable for the current system of patronage to continue. I also believe it should be a streamlined Chamber of around 250 members, not a House of some 700 as proposed.

  However important the debate surrounding the powers and constitutional rose of the Second House, I fear I am less qualified than many others who will no doubt have strong views on this aspect. Inevitably press coverage will deal more feverishly with the issue of composition and for that reason I shall concentrate my observations in this area, albeit with more than a passing concern that the excellent contribution of the Bishopric stands to be lost or diluted by the second state of reform.

  I believe that the current proposals will in essence enable the Labour Party, in order to bring its relative number of life peers to a level commensurate with the two main parties' comparative share of the vote at the 1997-2001 General Elections, to continue to pack over the next few years a large number of Labour MLs into the House. Presumably, if recent experience is anything to go by, this will be achieved from the already over-represented ranks of local councillors and large-scale political donors.

  Turning to the general issue of composition, I wish to comment briefly on The House of Lords Completing the Reform document. I disagree with the view of the Commission or of the Government as set out in paragraph 37. It seems to me that in the current climate it is only direct election which can provide legitimacy for the Second Chamber. The notion (in paragraph 38) that "the central objection to a directly elected Second Senate is that it would, by its very nature, represent a challenge to the pre-eminence of the House of Commons" is simply wrong. There is no reason why with specific powers that the House of Lords could not, even if fully elected, work well alongside the Commons. After all Members of the European Parliament and County, District and Parish Councils all represent the same, distinct geographical area as Members of the House of Commons but no-one expresses concern that this somehow leads to a usurping of the role of MPs. Indeed, the Commons has the ultimate protection afforded by the Parliament Act to ensure its pre-eminence.

  Paragraph 39 also makes the dubious claim that "a parallel elective basis of authority for two chambers with parallel functions would inevitably create strongly competing authorities in the same spheres" and the idea that it would necessarily be a recipe for gridlock (any more than we have at present) is simply unsustainable.

  In paragraph 40 the White Paper states that a mainly elected Second Chamber would have a number of practical disadvantages including the disappearance of independent members. However, it is surely the case that hereditary peers were often less independent minded individuals. I would propose that a lower age limit be imposed for membership (say 40) if there is a genuine desire to avoid the over professionalisation of politics which I accept is one of the greatest threats to the independence of parliament today.

  I accept (paragraph 62) that one of the advantages of independent members is that they bring a different perspective and expertise and surely this is the crux question in looking to future reform. How best can we protect and reinforce these aspects in the years ahead? The current messy arrangements (most recently manifested by the appointment of so called "people's peers") is clearly unsatisfactory.

  I was also concerned by the proposals in paragraph 66 as to the role of the Appointments Commission. The White Paper proposes over 400 political members of the new House of Lords. The argument that parties with only 2.5 per cent of the vote could claim a seat by right would "lead to unacceptable fragmentation in the membership of the House" is in truth a mere attempt to further gerrymandering. The German model of a 5 per cent minimum share of the vote threshold (similar to the one being proposed here in the White Paper) was of course based on the specific circumstances pertaining in West Germany in the immediate post-war era in order to stop extremist parties from participating. Based on the results for the 2001 Election a genuinely proportionate system would encourage smaller parties—the United Kingdom Independent Party would be entitled to six seats, the Greens three, and the Socialist Alliance, Socialist Labour and BNP parties one apiece.

  I must confess that I was able only to raise a wry smile in the concluding paragraph of the White Paper statement that "any Government's ability to manipulate the membership of the House will be eliminated". This is disingenuous since although this may prove true in future decades, in the interim five years or so there will be a full opportunity the current Government to maximise its manipulation of the Second Chamber.

  As a less than scientific focus group exercise I conducted a qualitative consultation on the future of the House of Lords by writing to 1500 electors in Knightsbridge, and I attach for your information a summary of the individual responses I received.

Mark Field

Cities of London and Westminster


  1.  My preferred solution is to be found across the Atlantic where all Senators have to be voted into Office every four years (sic).

  2.  The House has traditionally comprised a mix of amateur and professional; the only easy way out is to make it an entirely elected House. It would be difficult to see how much of a mandate this would get given the apathy of the electorate.

  3.  Strong misgivings about the changes already introduced and further modernisation now proposed is unconstitutional.

  4.  Essential in order to restore any confidence in the House that its remaining peers should be all elected. To nominate Government cronies would be a travesty of justice and would produce only contempt for the House.

  5.  Why the British public cannot be trusted to vote for a Second Chamber with limited powers I cannot see. I trust that the Conservatives will do whatever is possible to bring about a wholly elected Second Chamber.

  6.  Some attempt should be made to keep a representation of hereditary peers but only by election of the House itself and not by prime ministerial patronage.

  7.  I accept it is extremely difficult to get an agreed compromise as clearly the Government has not thought through what they were going to do before abolishing the hereditary peers. Some life peers on merit is the best approach.

  8.  An independent second house is necessary to act as a check on the Government. Too many members of the House of Commons have a front bench job which means they have to remain on side. There is no other way that ensuring that the Lords are active or are on a long-term appointment.

  9.  The Lords has functioned well for over 700 years and the greater the independence from Party Whips the better. Politicians should not be excluded, but interference should be minimised by those with worthwhile experience outside the party political sphere. Look for those with experience, honest people with respect and integrity. This is important today more so than ever.

  10.  Essentially I believe that a strong second chamber is needed as a check on the Commons in order to protect our liberties. Either we should have kept essentially what we had or the second chamber should now be completely elected. I favour a smaller number of members than for the Commons and election by proportional representation.

  11.  Extremely concerned about this government's attempts to tamper with the British constitution and I also feel strongly that the second chamber is essential and probably the reform of it has gone far enough.

  12.  I strongly believe in the need for an effective Upper House; there has to be a break on the excesses of government. Anyone who has listened to debates in both Houses must be conscious that the level of debate in the House of Lords is infinitely superior and I was appalled when I saw a list of the names of those putting themselves forward for self-nomination to the Lords. I resent the incipient cronyism of which I suspect there is too much.

  13.  I am certain that the House of Lords is an important institution which should have an impact on everyone's life.

  14.  The ninety-two hereditary peers are a valuable element which should be retained.

  15.  I have been greatly impressed by the debates that I have attended during recent years in the House of Lords. Speakers in the House of Lords can contribute more honestly to debates without worrying about upsetting constituents or having to be re-elected. I deplore this government's proposals, which combine possibly the worst of all variants.

  16.  Since it is too late to undo what has been done I now support converting the House of Lords to being fully elected like the House of Commons.

  17.  The previous structure of the House of Lords was difficult to defend with domination by the hereditary peers. I fear that the government's proposals will produce even more fault lines in the institution than the one it has replaced.

  18.  I remain strongly of the view that we should retain our constitution and resist all legislation from the European Union to change it. I am sure we shall be independent of the plans for federation and it is difficult to see how House of Lords selection by quango or election from party lists would produce a better mix of skills from the hereditary system which worked so well over the recent centuries. Personally I would retain a proportion of hereditary and selected peers until a few further years have passed.

  19.  The only acceptable alternative for a reformed House of Lords is an elected or predominantly elected chamber. Much of the old House of Lords should ideally be preserved—the cross-benchers and non-party political membership; the younger element; the independence of the party whip and the acknowledgment of its ultimate submission to the House of Commons.

January 2002

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