Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth (LR 48)


  1.  When the Government published its White Paper House of Lords: Completing the Reform (Cm 5291), you wrote to the members of the Wakeham Royal Commission asking for our views on the proposals—to which, perhaps mistakenly, I did not respond, because I felt that others would express their reservations better than I, as did John Wakeham. Now, having attended (or read) the debates in the two Houses last week (what a difference a 10 or 15 minute time limit makes), I offer the following comments in what is intended to be a constructive manner.

Need for reflection, and adjustment of policies

  2.  In the previous Lords reform attempt, in 1968-9, the reformers were unwilling to reconsider their plans in the light of criticisms, notably after the collapse of the Inter-Party talks, and again after the debates in the two Houses on the White Paper. In retrospect I think this was a mistake (although I must take a share of the blame).

  3.  A second failure was not to recognise that it was essential to have the wholehearted support of government backbenchers in the Commons. Inter-Party consensus was thought to be the key to a constitutional reform of the kind intended while in fact what mattered was the support of the party in the Commons. Historically most constitutional reforms have been carried on a party vote eg. 1832, 1911 and then accepted by all—cases of consensus like the recent electoral bill are the exception. One way to achieve MPs interest would be to turn the emphasis somewhat away from Lords Reform to "reform of Parliament" to strengthen the role of Parliament vis a« vis the executive—and a willingness to consider the functions and procedures of the two Houses, and to make radical proposals for their improvement.

Review of Functions and Procedures

  4.  A recurring theme in both debates was the low standing of the Commons, the need to consider its functions, and procedures, and not to concentrate on the Lords alone, which despite some "blips" (eg section 28 and age of consent) was generally felt to be doing rather well with recent achievements on Terrorism and Trial by Jury legislation. A way of answering this criticism would be to come forward with a proposal for a Joint Select Committee on Lords Reform but to couple it with proposals for improvement in the functioning of the Commons. This task would fall to the existing Modernisation Committee in the Commons, whose record in the last Parliament was unhappy and which could thereby redeem itself. The aim would be to make MPs feel more loved and wanted, as Wilson and Crossman intended after 1966 when saddled with a large majority. Many believe that the legislative process is flawed in the Commons, and that it could be radically improved by a single procedural change—namely by allowing Standing Committees to specialise with an ongoing membership (in agriculture etc) and to take evidence.

  5.  The Hansard report, Norton and Wakeham all give many examples of procedural changes which might be made eg. More pre- and post-legislative work and a Committee on Treaties, better EU scrutiny and so on. In this way, M.P.s could be given a more useful role. The government would have to be serious about it, but it could do so in a measured way—ie by not losing their capacity to get legislation onto the statute book within a timescale. A Joint Committee would need a serious Chairman, proper support, possible Ministerial membership (but not as chairman) and a membership, willing to work towards consensus.

Proportion of elected to nominated Members

  6.  To meet majority views in the Commons, a variation of the proportion of elected members is required upwards—possibly to 33 per cent or even 50 per cent. But the 80 per cent proposed by the Conservatives is too high—it would threaten the Commons' pre-eminence—and it could imperil the meaningful retention of an independent/expert role of the Lords, especially if the Law Lords and bishops are retained as part of the 20 per cent. Further, if 80 per cent of a new Senate is elected on the first past the post system for a three-Parliament span, the inevitable result will be that for the first one or two Parliaments after a change of government, there will be an elected majority in the Upper House of the other political party to that of the government. It will also mean that minority parties will fare badly, and probably women and ethnic minorities. For these reasons a PR system based on open list would be preferable.

  7.  The Lords debate had powerful speeches (Howe, Dahrendorf, Norton) in favour of a nominated House, which unsurprisingly many preferred, but for reasons given in paragraph 3, it is too late to revert to that solution, though they provided arguments against a wholly or largely elected House.

  8.  Jenkins, with his great knowledge, made the case for a small elected Senate, like in the US (as did Gordon Prentice and others) which deserves consideration, possibly coupled with a multi-option bill. But this solution would entail a threat to the Commons' supremacy, and a risk of "gridlock" (though this possibility is largely fantasy as the US and Australian experience suggests).

Appointments Commission

  9.  The widespread dislike of party patronage seems to reinforce the Wakeham case of the Commission to be formally responsible for appointments—this would allow them to make vetting a real job and not just a charade (as the PHSC ahs so often proved to be), but in practice the great majority of party members would continue to be party generated.

Powers over Subordinate Legislation

  10.  Here the arguments are finely balanced, but, on balance, for the reason already stated (paragraph 3) of minding government backbencher's views—I think the argument points to Wakeham with the important modifications that there should be a minimum delay of say, three months and that the Commons would have to reaffirm their previous decision in each case.

Length of Appointment

  11.  Short term appointments/elections were unpopular in the debates. If the proportion of elected were put up to 1/3, it would allow 1/3 to be elected each time (coupled with either local or EP elections, whichever produced the best turnout).

Remuneration/Size of House

  12.  There was much support for a smaller House—but the corollary of this would be paid more of less full-time senators. More paid full—time politicians will hardly be popular—what with Scotland and Wales and other recent changes. Better a part-time membership paid allowances on the basis of attendance—this permits an expert part-time membership.


  13.  There is no need to keep on the old rules of peerage law. There should be similar rules as for the Commons—the simplest solution. The alternative would be use the judicial expertise of the law lords in the Committee for Privileges to deal with naughty members.

Alternative of Doing Nothing

  14.  This would provoke ridicule, as the Heath Robinson arrangements for filling the 92 hereditary places under the Weatherill amendment will continue as a running sore and reproach to the government's commitments. It is worth recalling that in 1968-69, the abandonment of the Parliament (No 2) bill, was the precursor to the scuppering of the Industrial Relations legislation of the Wilson government, and eventually the loss of the 1970 election. Further, if the "interim" House continued there would be nothing to prevent a future government of another party from disowning the commitment to avoid single party domination which this government made in their manifesto.

January 2002

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