Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Letter from John Austin, MP (LR 56)


  You will know from my meetings with Gareth Williams, Robin Cook and Charles Clarke that I strongly disagree with the proposals contained in the White Paper and I believe that my concern is shared by a majority of MPs and by the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members.

  I believe that the sense of anger felt by MPs and party members would have been far less if the White Paper had been presented as a step on the road to reform rather than the final solution.

  You and the Prime Minster have argued that, as there is not a majority for any alternative package, this is the only package on offer. I find this attitude both arrogant and illogical, particularly as there is an evident and growing body of opinion in Parliament that the upper chamber should be substantially elected.

  I regret that the proposals have been put forward without any consideration having been given to reform of the Commons and the possibility of increasing the pre-legislative and scrutiny roles of back-benchers through a revised committee structure.

  I also find it incomprehensible that you can be contemplating a revising and scrutiny role for the Lords with a membership in excess of 600-700. If there is to be a second chamber it should no larger that 200-300 and should be wholly or substantially elected. My definition of substantial would be a least two thirds.

  In a democracy, I find it offensive that we can have a chamber of the parliament substantially nominated or appointed. Powers of patronage are an affront to democracy and I have little confidence in an independent panel given our experiences of the so-called "people's peers" who are indistinguishable from those appointed through political patronage. Accountability is an essential element of a democratic society and the ability of the ruled to remove their rules.

  This democratic principle must be central to any reform. I accept that it may not be achieved in one go but it should be worked towards.

  I would suggest that a free vote of members of the House of Commons should determine the size and the proportion of elected members of the second chamber. Once those principles are agreed we can debate how to get there.

  In terms of reducing the size of the current House, I do not believe we can rely on the "Grim Reaper" to achieve an acceptable number and that a "redundancy" package will need to be presented, firstly to attract volunteers but I accept that at the end of the day compulsory retirement may have to be introduced.

  Once in place, the new second chamber might wish to explore ways in which the knowledge and expertise of specialists might be employed, possibly by co-options in an advisory capacity for specific tasks.

  The precise powers and limitations of power of the second chamber will need to be defined and the process of election considered, but these issues should not at this stage distract us from the two fundamental decisions about the size and the proportion of elected members.

January 2002

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