Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by David Clelland, MP (LR 55)

  On the question of House of Lords reform mine is very much a minority view, but I take comfort in the knowledge that all good ideas start out as a minority view

  The Prime Minister told David Frost that any reformed second chamber should be different from the House of Commons.

  The PM is right. The House of Commons is not such a loved institution that people are crying out for another one. And Members of Parliament are not so popular that the electorate are eager to go to the polls to elect another 300, 500 or 600 of them.

  We are told that there are only three options for change:

    —  Complete abolition and a uni-cameral system,

    —  a party elected chamber with remainder appointed by a commission or,

    —  a wholly elected chamber.

  I believe there are other options and I shall come on to a "fourth way" in a moment. First though, what of the three proposals above.

  The problem with the current debate is that it was started from the wrong point. The Royal Commission and most commentators are searching for a new way to decide who should sit in the second chamber, when what we should first determine is what it should do? If it is to carry on much as at present then it is legitimate to ask "do we need a second chamber at all"? After all, if there were no second chamber then there would be a lot more time for scrutiny by members in the Commons. But there can and should be a useful and beneficial role for a second chamber that is sensibly constituted.

  A wholly elected second chamber would divide on political lines just like the Commons. If it were elected at the same time as the general election, it would most likely be dominated by the same political party as the Commons and would have as its priority maintaining that party in power. Hardly a recipe for good government, and thorough scrutiny of proposed legislation. If elected half way through a Parliament it would likely be dominated by a different political party, which would give priority to getting the government out, leading to parliamentary gridlock and bad government. Electing it for a different term of office, as proposed by the Conservative Party, would not avoid these two major disadvantages.

  A `partly elected' second chamber, as proposed by the Royal Commission and suggested in the government's `White Paper', would create two classes of member. Those who considered themselves mandated by their electorate and others who would be accountable to no-one. Surely the essence of any democratic chamber is that all members are of equal status? And a commission responsible for appointing the unelected members would—as we have seen—merely appoint people like themselves. Hardly a recipe for a representative chamber.

  A reformed second chamber should be an improvement on what we have at the moment, not only in the method of producing its members but also in the quality of its work. It should, as the PM observed, be different from the Commons. A second chamber should be able to assist in improving our system of government, not be there to act as an obstacle to the elected government—like another opposition. The job of "holding the executive to account" properly belongs to the back-benches and the opposition in the House of Commons. We do not need a second chamber to carry out that function.

  If, as I believe, the second chamber is to provide a forum for informed comment on government bills, to give advice and to help in the avoidance of pitfalls unforeseen by the Commons and parliamentary draftsmen, to suggest improvements to legislation and propose useful amendments, to hold open debates on matters of national importance from a different perspective than the politically charged House of Commons—then it has to be constituted differently from the House of Commons. Yet, to be a legitimate part of the democratic process, it must be accountable in some way to the community as a whole.

THE FOURTH WAY

  The House of Commons represents and is accountable to the people by way of direct election. That is what gives it its power and its place as the principal decision making forum in our country. The second chamber should represent and be accountable to the structure of our society—by indirect election. That will give it legitimacy and respect but it will remain the "second chamber".

  A "House of Representatives" should replace the House of Lords, made up of people from the regions and nations of the UK, via the devolved assemblies,—Local Government—Business Sector—Trade Unions—Religious organisations—voluntary sector—Higher Education—Health, etc.

  This would provide a body of experience and expertise from across the nation and across society. People who would be accountable to their parent organisations yet not overtly party political. It would also ensure representation from the regions and nations—an important and widely accepted necessary reform.

  Members of the House of Representatives (MHRs perhaps) would have a five year fixed term of office following which they could be replaced by their organisation or given a further term. The parent organisation should be obligated to ensure a proper balance between the genders and proper representation by ethnic minorities.

  Such a second chamber would command the respect of the people and be widely recognised as being capable of scrutiny and the detailed examination of proposed legislation. It would put an end to patronage and enhance the democratic process.

  I believe that such a chamber would stand the test of time and would provide a much better alternative to the present Lords and to the `dogs dinner' which the White Paper and various other proposals threaten to foist upon us.

February 2002



 
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Prepared 25 February 2002