THURSDAY 17 JANUARY 2002

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Members present:

Mr Tony Wright, in the Chair
Kevin Brennan
Annette Brooke
Mr David Heyes
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger
Mr John Lyons
Mr Gordon Prentice
Mr Michael Trend
Brian White

 

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Examination of Witness

RT HON ROBIN COOK, a Member of the House, Leader of the House of Commons, examined.

Chairman

  1. Can I welcome Robin Cook, Leader of the House. It is very kind of you to come along and help the Committee with its short inquiry into the Government's proposals on the reform of the second chamber. I do not think you want to make a statement?
  2. (Mr Cook) I am at the disposal of the Committee. I am aware that time is necessarily tight, I would much rather listen to the Committee and respond to questions.

  3. Thank you very much. If I could just start with a couple of questions and then bring colleagues in. Just to get a sense of where you and the Government are coming from on this, on the basis of the proposals in the White Paper, there is a strong emphasis in those proposals on the need not to upset the balances and the section in there which talks about the pre-eminence of the House of Commons is entirely about not upsetting these balances in the system. Could I put this to you. If we think that is the direction that we have got to come from we shall not really understand what this is about because surely we do need to upset the balances in the system and overwhelmingly we need to upset the balance between Parliament as a whole and the Executive. Is that not what reform should be about? Is that not what part of your reform in the Commons is about? Is that not what the Liaison Committee Report last year on shifting the balance was all about? Instead of just saying that our job here is to preserve the balance, is not the real job to see how reform of the House of Lords could sit inside the general task of shifting the balance?
  4. (Mr Cook) I think there are two quite distinct and separate concepts of balance in what you ask, Tony. First of all, on the question of the balance between Parliament and the Government, I have been robust in saying that I do not see the process of modernisation as a matter of a tug of war between Government and Parliament. They both need each other, they both need each other to be healthy and effective. As I have been repeatedly saying, my watchword is good scrutiny makes for good government. I think that the measures that I have included in my memorandum on modernisation of the Commons will help Parliament to be more effective, to do a better job of scrutiny and, particularly in the case of legislation, to have a longer time for scrutiny. I am not sure that I would necessarily use the words "shifting the balance" in that context but, for the record, by the time we have completed our proposals on the Select Committees in the next few months we will have met most of the agenda within shifting the balance, so that is progressive. There is a quite separate issue of the balance between the Commons and the Lords. We are certainly robust in the White Paper in setting out that we see the Commons as the pre-eminent chamber, that we do not wish to undermine that pre-eminence or make any proposal that would achieve an equivalence between the Commons and the Lords. I would say, Tony, anything that makes the House of Lords more representative, more democratic, more legitimate, is likely to produce some shift in the relative position of the House of Lords. What we must take care to do is not to achieve a second chamber which over a period of time would seek parity with the Commons and perhaps not even stop at parity. Do remember that when the founding fathers wrote the American constitution they saw the House of Representatives as the superior chamber and expected the Senate to be a very inferior one.

  5. You have explained it very well and you have explained the difference between the different kinds of balance but I want to press you a bit further. Nobody is suggesting that the constitutional balance of powers between the Commons and the Lords should be altered. That is a given in all the discussion that is going on here, both in your proposals and in the Royal Commission and so on. What I am really asking is do we not need a stronger second chamber to combine with a reformed and stronger House of Commons more effectively to hold governments to account?
  6. (Mr Cook) You need a representative effective second chamber so that it can carry out those functions that it currently has and which we in the White Paper identified as where its future role lies. I think if you get into the idea that you change the balance between Parliament and the Executive by strengthening the second chamber, you have got to understand the logic of what you are saying, which is that you will also be strengthening the second chamber as against the present Parliament's position, the status of the first chamber, of the Commons. If I can just take up your opening statement where you said that everybody takes as a given the constitutional status of the Lords, I am sure that is true in the sense that we could all sit down and write a description of what those powers or status should be but a constitution cannot be fixed on any one piece of paper, it changes, it shifts, it breathes, it lives, it grows. Indeed, if you look back over the past 400 years, the parliamentary history of those 400 years has been a gradual shift of power from the Lords to the Commons creating a very different animal in the second chamber. If you create one that may claim an equally democratic mandate you will find some of that flow starting to reverse itself.

  7. Okay. One further question just to get us up and running. When we had Lord Lipsey here a few minutes ago, a Labour Peer, someone who was broadly supportive of the Government's proposals in the White Paper when they appeared, he has now told us that he thought they were a dead duck. He gave a graphic description of this duck with its feet in the air and the need to move on now into different territory. Is that a correct reading of the situation, do you think?
  8. (Mr Cook) I thought I heard you referring to Peers as a dead duck. We put out the White Paper for consultation and, indeed, we were quite explicit about the consultative character of it and we posed six specific questions on the last page of the White Paper. The very first of those was is the proposed proportion between the elected membership and the appointed membership the correct proportion? I would fully accept that the broad tenor of the response to the consultation, both within Parliament and outside Parliament, has tended to suggest that in the minds of most people the answer to that is that this is not the correct proportion. That is why I said on Thursday that the end of consultation must be followed by a period of reflection in which we consider the views that have been expressed. We use that time to try and establish where is the centre of gravity around which reform could gather. As I warned last Thursday, for me the most serious risk is that we end up in a situation in which we are unable to achieve a sufficient critical mass of agreement among those who want reform for any reform to take place. That, after all, is why the Reform Bill of the House of Lords has taken so long to achieve. I am very keen that we should make it a priority on all sides of those who want reform to try and find common ground around which we can build not a consensus, because there are too many different views and some people will never be convinced, but at least a centre of gravity.

  9. I think we are very mindful of that. Just on that before I go to colleagues, we need to be clear whether we are talking about fundamental principles or whether we are talking about room for pragmatic manoeuvre. I really would find it helpful, and the Committee would find it helpful, in knowing how to proceed in looking at this whole area, to know whether the Government had dug itself in as a matter of constitutional principle that crucially the elected element of a reformed second chamber had to be a minority or whether it would find no constitutional bar, to use language from another debate, to moving to one where that element was a majority?
  10. (Mr Cook) First of all, I do not think that I would feel comfortable suggesting that we can ever build a principle around a percentage. By definition, which percentage you choose is a matter of judgment. If you are seeking for what we might identify as the two principles at each pole of this debate, the first principle is that there must be an elected element. In the second chamber, if it is going to exercise scrutiny of public policy in the public interest, then there must at least be some of that second chamber who are elected by the public. The second principle I would then enunciate, and one which I dwelt on at some length in my speech on Thursday, is that I personally would be strongly opposed to a wholly elected second chamber because once you concede that you concede a chamber that will be entitled to claim an equally democratic mandate to the Commons and the principle of the pre-eminence of the Commons certainly then would be undermined. Those are two principles at different poles of the discussion. Where in between those two poles you hit on the right percentage I think is a matter of judgment. For me the matter of judgment very much is where can we find that point at which we have a centre of gravity which enables reformers on both sides of that percentage to come together. Also, I do not think that we should get too fixated necessarily in looking at this as a majority/minority question because in the real world when the House of Lords, or whatever it may be, meets in the future it will not be a vote between those elected and those not elected, it will be between those who take a liberal perspective, with a small 'L' and the perspective of those who may take a more conservative view.

    Chairman: That is a very helpful answer. If I understood you correctly it means that as you describe these two opposites there is enormous latitude between them for manoeuvre. Thank you very much for that.

    Brian White

  11. I start from the point of view of being a unicameralist and not accepting the second chamber as the right place but, given that seems to be outside the bounds of the argument, I just want to concentrate on the appointed element of the proposals. Is the Government committed to the fact that they have to be appointed or would it consider an indirect elected route as a way of appointing those members?
  12. (Mr Cook) I do not know that those are necessarily alternatives, they could well co-exist together. Indeed, the only four ways that have been identified as entry points, if I can put it in those terms, would be direct elections by the public, appointment by an independent body such as the Stephenson Commission, appointment by the political leaders and indirect elections by other collective bodies. I think it is very important if we go down the indirect election route that the indirect elections are themselves carried out by democratically elected bodies such as, for instance, the devolved bodies of future regional assemblies which may flow from the forthcoming White Paper. You could envisage a composition that drew on more than one of those different routes and having, say, the Stephenson Commission carrying out independent appointments on a statutory basis is not inconsistent with having also some indirectly elected, not as an alternative to a direct election but as a complement to it. Views on this differ. I mentioned this in the course of my speech last Thursday. As somebody who comes from a part of the United Kingdom where there is a vigorous and well supported devolved body I can see the attractions of the indirect election route. It also, as I said on Thursday, comes closer to the model that exists through most of Europe. Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, all have second chambers which are predominantly reflections of indirect election by regional local bodies. If though that is to come into the frame when we come to revise these proposals I think we need to hear from those devolved bodies that exist that they want to go down that route. The Wakeham Commission reported that it found no support among them for such a position but that may have changed. The whole point of consultation is to identify whether that has changed.

  13. Given the reducing turnouts at General Elections and other elections, how does the Government see the relevance of the changes in the House of Lords about re-establishing credibility with the electorate?
  14. (Mr Cook) Can I just say in passing, arising from your earlier question, the turnout at the election for the Scottish Parliament was actually higher than the turnout for the General Election in Scotland, so it is a good case which I think reinforces the validity of the indirect election route. I am very concerned about the problem you identify, which is the declining participation in our direct democracy, our parliamentary democracy, which has many explanations but one of which does appear to relate to a declining esteem for Parliament, which you can chart through a number of different surveys of social attitude. I think the remedy for that lies primarily in the hands of the Commons. As I have said on a number of occasions, we need to make ourselves appear relevant, effective, modern. We need to show that we live in the same century as the people who vote for us and that we actually carry out a serious and real job in the public interest, not carry out parliamentary games for the point of view of scoring party political points. It may be that a credible effect of a modern second chamber could play a part in restoring that esteem for Parliament but I think 80 per cent of the challenge certainly rests with the Commons.

  15. Is not one of the things that is going to reinforce that divergence an appointed House of Lords which is the great and the good and the chattering masses of Islington rather than somebody out of a council estate in any town outside London you might care to mention? We are going to be putting in the House of Lords the same sort of people who are already there and keep that divide in existence.
  16. (Mr Cook) If I may just say so, I think the question conflates two separate problems. One is the character of the people who are appointed. I do think that the Stephenson Commission have been unfairly criticised on this because they were given a remit and their remit was to find people of distinction who could bring authority and expertise to the House of Lords. It naturally follows from giving them that remit that they are going to produce people who have achieved status and position. I think that they did extremely well in the people whom they chose and we have now in the House of Lords the Chief Executive of Childline, the Chief Executive of Centre Point, a trustee of Oxfam, people who probably would not have got there under the previous appointments system and certainly would probably never have stood for election and that is welcome. There is a second issue which is the regional distribution and there does appear to be evidence that membership of the House of Lords is skewed to the South East and the magical London to Bristol ellipse. That is, of course, one of the reasons for the Wakeham Commission recommending that we need to address the regional balance within the House of Lords and either direct elections or, perhaps even more strongly, indirect elections would go a long way to meeting that need.

    Mr Liddell-Grainger

  17. Can I ask you about having joint committees between the Lords and the Commons. Would it not be advantageous to be able to sit down and discuss exactly where this is going? You have put out a White Paper, there is obviously broad disagreement among a lot of people as to where this is going to end up. Would it not be better to set up a joint committee to start this ball rolling to decide what the House is going to be like at the end of all this and try to work the other way round?
  18. (Mr Cook) There were repeated offers in the last Parliament of a joint committee but it never happened because we could never agree on the remit of a joint committee. Those offers were made by the Government and it was not for want of trying on the Government's part that we did not actually get a joint committee. As to where we are now, frankly I think that the important issue now is the consultation period followed by a period of reflection and debate on it. I have never ruled out at some point it may be appropriate to have a joint committee but I think we need to consider where we are going to find that centre of gravity before we establish a joint committee to establish the proposals.

  19. But is that not the problem, that we are not establishing a centre of gravity? Everybody has their own ideas, you just look around here and we have all got different ideas, never mind in all the other places. Would it not be an idea to try to find the centre of gravity where we are going to end up at the end of the day to see what the Other Place is going to do at the end of the day and what its remit will be in, say, five or ten years' time?
  20. (Mr Cook) I am not opposed in principle to joint committees and, as I say, it may well be at some stage appropriate to have it but I do not honestly think we are at the stage to do it now. A joint committee meeting in the abstract is not going to find its time used very valuable or credibly. Most joint committees we have appointed so far have been there to examine a proposal, usually for legislation but a proposal. I think we need to reflect on what that proposal might be first.

  21. Can I just ask one question on elections. You are proposing Model B out of Wakeham which is 87 elected members, 16 per cent, elected on proportional representation at the time of each European Parliament election. Do you not think that we are going to go down a line where you are going to have regionalisation, like election for a European Parliament? You are not getting a cross-section of the people you want to encourage in. You will be down a party line and, therefore, under whipping and all the rest of it. Are you not just going to create an interfering chamber at the other end because it is not going to be based on the people who perhaps have the best knowledge, it will go down a party system, closed or open, and, therefore, they will be more like us at this end and it is going to be much more like an interfering second chamber?
  22. (Mr Cook) First of all, it is true that the proposal stems from Model B in Wakeham but we did in the White Paper quite specifically say that we saw problems with basing it on the European Parliamentary elections, the most obvious of which is these are the elections that have the lowest turnout in the calender and, therefore, they may not be the wisest choice for a new innovation. We therefore proposed that the elections should go alongside the General Elections or, and we did note this as one variance of pattern, where there are regional elections or national elections, Scotland, Wales or London, that possibly the election of the members of the second chamber could take place on that day in those parts of the United Kingdom which would give those elected a much stronger regional dimension. To come to the nub of your point, first of all our proposal is that we should have mixed membership and that there should be that route into the House other than by election. Not simply because of party political considerations but because the reality is there are many people in Britain who actually would not find it an enjoyable experience standing for election. Those of us who do are perhaps an eccentric minority, we enjoy it, we relish it, but we are a minority. It is not to everybody's taste to stand for election and we should leave open the door for people of distinction to come into the Lords without requiring them to go through that process of election, and we did that. On Thursday I robustly defended an outcome for the second chamber which was a mixed membership. At the same time I find the discussion about party democracy, which is what we enjoy in Britain, a little bit odd. We know that the public out there are strongly attached to their democratic right and to their individual vote for an MP for an individual area. We know that it is the cornerstone of our constitution. We also know that ever since the days of the mass franchise the only possible way in which you can practically organise this is by parties who contest elections as parties with candidates chosen and standing locally. I, therefore, find myself a little bit impatient of the view that because people are elected, and therefore necessarily members of a political party, that we have somehow deprived the organisation of life, of debate, of substance, of people of calibre. I have been a professional politician for 30 years and I am not ashamed of it.

    Mr Prentice

  23. Robin, I am interested in where the centre of gravity lies.
  24. (Mr Cook) So am I.

  25. We are both Labour MPs and we both get these messages on our pagers that tell us we do not co-operate in surveys of any kind. I just wonder how the Government should divine the views, determine the views, of Members of Parliament? There is a consultation period that ends on 31 January but do you think there is a place for a more systematic survey of the views of Members of Parliament? I say that in the context of what the Prime Minister said, that there are as many solutions, blueprints, as there are MPs.
  26. (Mr Cook) This is not something to which we can find the answer by opinion poll and it is not going to be done by an arithmetical formula, but plainly debate, discussion and exchange of views are essential to that process of trying to find what it is that the market will wear and, indeed, what it is that the market will be enthusiastic about. That process of dialogue and exchange has been going on since November 7 and I am sure will continue for some time to come.

  27. We are all interested in the end point of this exercise. You told us just a few moments ago that the Government is not ready yet for a joint committee, that is what you said. I just wonder how long you see this process taking because you told us earlier that after the end of the consultation period there would be a period of reflection.
  28. (Mr Cook) It would be, I think, quite wrong to appoint a joint committee during the consultation period. I think it would be entirely proper that at the end of that consultation period, whatever the outcome response has been, we should reflect on what we have heard in the course of that consultation. I do not honestly think that there is anything contentious or improper in me saying at this stage that in the light of what we have heard so far, and are likely to hear in the next two weeks, that that period of reflection should not be rushed.

  29. That does not take us much further forward, Robin. I wondered the extent to which the new Conservative policy has changed the nature of the debate?
  30. (Mr Cook) The new Conservative policy is interesting. It has its own problems. I cannot say I recognise the proposition that Surrey should have as many people returned to represent them as London as democracy as I understand it. We certainly would wish to hear more about it and enter into discussion about it. What is also not clear to me yet, Gordon, is the extent to which that front bench policy commands consensus within the Conservative Party.

  31. Maybe they ought to survey the opinions of the Conservative MPs.
  32. (Mr Cook) That is a matter open for them.

  33. Do you think that there would be any merit just in moving this thing on in the Government publishing a Bill, and as I said in the debate last Thursday maybe a multi-option Bill, which would allow the Commons, and subsequently the Lords, to actually vote on proposals?
  34. (Mr Cook) I can see merit in a draft Bill and, indeed, had the White Paper commanded a successful response in the consultation I would have thought that the next logical step would be to translate that into a draft Bill. Whether we can go from here to a draft Bill in the course of February is a very open question. You raised the point about, as it were, a multi-choice question. In some sense that is inevitable whether or not the Government puts it in the Bill because any Bill will be amendable and any figure in the Bill can have alternatives put down to it. Therefore, as and when we get to any point of legislation there will be that process of amendment and vote in the Chamber. I myself would much rather that we took some time before we wrote the Bill to find a figure which would provide, as best we can achieve it, the centre of gravity that I am hoping for because I do not want the Bill wrecked in the process of going through the House.

  35. Just two quick points. On the Stephenson Commission that gave us the People's Peers, we are not going to get a new Appointments Commission, are we, it is going to be the Stephenson Commission put on a new statutory basis?
  36. (Mr Cook) Not necessarily. We have committed ourselves in the White Paper, and for those who accept a case for independent appointments this is not contentious, it is of course contentious for those who want a wholly elected chamber, for those who accept the case for mixed membership the concept of a statutory independent commission is one that is in itself not contentious. It does not necessarily need to be the present members of the Stephenson Commission, although some of them will have the experience and position which will make them appropriate for membership.

  37. My final question is this. We had Lord Norton before us just a few moments ago and he was talking about the asymmetric nature of the British constitution. I was interested in what you told us about having indirect election from the regional bodies, if and when they are set up, and the devolved institutions. What does the Scottish Parliament, and you will have colleagues there, think about the possibility of legislation passed in Edinburgh being subject to scrutiny by the Westminster Parliament, the second chamber of the Westminster Parliament?
  38. (Mr Cook) I think they would take the view that this would be a defeat for devolution, the point of which was these issues should be settled by elections in Scotland and then carried through by people elected by the Scottish people to which part of Britain that legislation is confined.

  39. So it is up to the Scottish Parliament to decide whether or not they participate in this UK Parliament?
  40. (Mr Cook) I do not see it happening unless they express an opinion and as yet, as far as I am aware, they have not expressed a view.

    Kevin Brennan

  41. Just a follow up on that point about indirect elections. I just wanted to probe what you have in mind there or what perhaps the understanding is of what we are talking about. Are you actually talking about there being the possibility of some kind of electoral college formed by the members of the National Assembly for Wales, for example, or the Scottish Parliament or, in future, English Regional Assemblies, which would then elect from amongst their number, perhaps rather like in the Irish system, some of the members of the second chamber, or are you thinking directly of members of those institutions actually serving in the second chamber?
  42. (Mr Cook) I shall honestly and sincerely try to give a truthful answer to your question but I begin with a very strong health warning that anything I say is my own personal thoughts on the matter, it is not an issue on which the Government has a collective view and, indeed, in the White Paper we did not propose indirect elections as the way forward. It is a question of whether we will have to revisit that in the light of whatever responses we get to consultation. Therefore, this must not be read as any statement of collective wisdom. The option I would have thought more likely that we would wish to go down, if we go down that route, is to allow each of the bodies themselves to choose a representative without making it that kind of collective electoral college that you have described. As to whether the people who would be elected were from their own number or from outside it, frankly that is a matter that personally I would be content to leave to them and I do not think it is necessarily for us to prescribe from the centre. I stress, Tony, that we have made no proposal on that and there is no collective view on that.

  43. One of the points you made earlier about the fact that there has not been a proactive approach, for example, from the National Assembly for Wales on this issue is because it only has 60 Members and they are very fully employed in the structure they have. They can barely get enough Members to serve on all the committees and so on because it is quite a small body. I think it is less well understood that what might be a possible proposal in this area, accepting it is not a Government proposal, is that they should elect from outwith their number representatives from Wales or from Scotland and so on. Are you satisfied that during the Wakeham consultation process, for example, and Lord Wakeham's report, that that sort of possibility was sufficiently explored and that the devolved bodies are aware that that might a route for having an influence in the second chamber?
  44. (Mr Cook) I cannot speak for Lord Wakeham, and I am sure he is quite relieved by that, but, in fairness to everybody, when he was carrying out his survey of opinion it was very early in the life of the devolved bodies and, indeed, I do not think the matter was ever formally put to the Scottish Parliament, so there is a case now for revisiting it to find out if those bodies have achieved their own sense of coherence, identity, have experience of running affairs and have people who wish to be here. The question of size is a very relevant one and in those circumstances it may indeed be proper for them to think about electing somebody who is not one of their number. It would apply with even greater force in the case of the Greater London Assembly, which is a small assembly, which, were it to go down this route, may wish to look for people to elect who are people of status in London but not necessarily one of their own number. As I say, all of this is kite flying, there is no proposal by the Government for indirect elections and there will not be unless there is a vigorous expression of opinion on that point.

  45. Can I just return to the issue of the composition and the percentage that could be directly elected. One argument that I have heard put forward by the Government is that it is difficult to get more than 20 per cent of the body directly elected because of the problem of the existing number of life Peers and in order to expand the number of directly elected Members you would have to grossly inflate the size of the second chamber in a way that would be unacceptable to the public. Would you agree that it is the case that insufficient thought has been given to the possibility of making redundant, perhaps on a voluntary basis, a large number of the current life Peers, many of whom do not actively participate much in the work of the House of Lords, and if they were offered a sufficient package would be quite willing to go? In fact, it could represent a saving to the public purse when one takes into account the prospect of paying expenses into the future. Would that not be one way of unblocking the objections that you might expect to encounter when these proposals come in front of the House of Lords?
  46. (Mr Cook) We did put in a White Paper proposal for a voluntary severance scheme, if I can put it in those terms, and indeed we do have something of that same idea within the House of Commons where we do have a resettlement grant for Members who are defeated. I am not in a position to know, and indeed neither are my colleagues in the House of Lords because nobody has yet posed the question to life Peers, how many that might bring forward to stand down from membership of the House, but it is a concept that we have already endorsed and we think maybe it would be helpful in bringing down the numbers of the House. Can I just say that, for me, I think the important issue now is that we try and get in our minds the design of the end state we are in. By necessity there will be a prolonged period of transition until we arrive there but I think that we can try and achieve some kind of coherence perhaps rather than consensus about what it is we all want to arrive at that point in the future. I think most people would have an understanding of the transitional period that is necessary to get there.

    Mr Lyons

  47. Can I go back to the beginning, Robin. You opened by saying that so far in the consultation the tenor seemed to indicate that the proportion to be elected was too small. Was the tenor saying anything about the size of the second chamber?
  48. (Mr Cook) Can I give a sort of health warning to start. I do not think it would ever be sensible to try and tabulate responses by numbers because necessarily we are dealing with responses which are to some extent self-selecting, to some extent are not comprehensive in what they say, and sometimes in the nature of opinion are self-contradictory. Anybody who has listened to the debate that we had in our place, who has studied what has been said in the press and looked at some of those responses that have come in, would recognise that there is a body of opinion that we should be looking at something that is smaller than that proposed. I recognise that in the real world we start out from a second chamber which is nearly 800, 750 I think. Until the abolition of most of the hereditary Peers in the last Parliament it was a body, certainly in paper membership, of over 1,100. The trend is downward and the trend will continue to be downward. We have, perhaps, to be realistic about how far we can achieve that downward trend. We are not in the position where happily we were in Edinburgh of devising a Scottish Parliament from scratch.

  49. Do you have any particular view about whether people should be part-time or full-time members?
  50. (Mr Cook) I do not think we should be prescriptive about that, after all we are not prescriptive about it in the House of Commons even. If you have direct elections, some of those who are elected will approach their jobs as certainly their main occupation. However, if you want to attract to the second chamber people who have achieved distinction, and can from that experience and authority give a valuable perspective to the debates, we cannot insist that they become full-time. First of all, you will sharply reduce the number of people willing to come forward in those circumstances and, secondly, it is unnecessary. For instance, I would not have wanted the Chief Executive of Childline or the Chief Executive of Centre Point to give notice on the day they were appointed by the Stevenson Commission. I think that in their cases it is entirely appropriate that they should become members so they can contribute as and when they feel they wish to contribute without necessarily doing the job full-time or indeed being required to do the job full-time.

  51. Can I just go back to the question of the Appointments Commission. Is there not a case to be made for appointments to be made on a regional basis, Scotland, Wales or wherever, rather than one central body of nomination or appointment?
  52. (Mr Cook) I think you do need to have one national body of appointment if you are going to do it at all because there are a number of considerations of balance to be achieved. But, we have said, having regard to regional balance will be one of the criteria we will be imposing as a duty on the new statutory body.

    Mr Trend

  53. I think many of us do regret that there was not a commission between the two Houses before the process got under way. We are dug into trenches on this one so it is not worth revisiting. For many people the argument actually begins before this process about how you divvy up if you are going to change the relationship between the two Houses and what character you want the second chamber to have. Indeed, our Chairman made a very raising speech in the House of Commons recently about the balance of power between Parliament itself and the Executive and how the whips in the Commons essentially can control the business that they want. We heard from various Peers today and last week that one of the fears that the current Lords have, who all seem to want to keep the same relationship between the Houses now and who want to keep the same character as the House has now, which in the opinion of one of the Peers raised the question of why change it at all. How are you going to stop, do you wish to stop, the influence of the whips growing in the House of Lords to such a point where party allegiance becomes the important factor and it becomes a very different sort of chamber?
  54. (Mr Cook) I think we are possibly being a little bit naive about the absence of party affiliations in the present second chamber. I think there are two separate issues here. The first is that if we want to have a democratic chamber with people directly elected then the vehicle for doing that is through the process of people standing as candidates for a party on the policy platform of a party that is nationally understood. It does not preclude people standing in their own right, and indeed we have at least one case in this Parliament where somebody was elected on that basis. The second question are those that might be appointed independently and for myself, actually, I have no problem in taking a view that those who are appointed independently should not take the party whip and, indeed, whatever their own private views should be, they should be outside that process of the party machine.

  55. Lord Lipsey said that the morale censure of the whips in the House of Lords was enough to keep him in line. Lord Norton took the view there was no need to worry about these things and if you felt genuinely concerned about an issue you could vote against the party because they had no powers of patronage over you. Now with an increased selection you will have patronage and you will have more power in the hands of the whips and the idea that somehow you can deploy specialists and independent people and try and hold a balance would seem to me to be, in the end, an untenable proposition. Once you start down the road of elected members it will be difficult to argue that you should not elect them all.
  56. (Mr Cook) There would seem to be a fundamental point in what you are putting to me that I must say I find myself disagreeing with. You seem to be arguing that because more people are elected, and therefore in the nature of not only our democracy but every parliamentary democracy I am aware of stands as part of a party platform, that therefore they are necessarily going to be subject to the power of the whips and this is wrong. If we go too far down that argument we will end up rejecting elections as a basis on which we constitute our legislature. Secondly, it is not surprising that when elected most party members vote with their party because after all that is the platform on which they are elected. The reason why Labour's legislation goes through the House of Commons is not primarily because the whips go out telling people they must do it, it is because by and large Labour Members feel they wish to vote for Labour proposals, and those are the policies on which they stood. At the end of the day, to be honest, I think "power" of the whips is much exaggerated. There is not really that much they can do if you say no but it is down to Members themselves whether they wish to. The fact they say "yes" is not a criticism of them, they genuinely agree with what the Government is doing.

  57. So far you are in a minority of one on that. Most people do feel the power of the whips is growing.
  58. (Mr Cook) In my time I have been a minority much bigger than one.

  59. One of the things that clearly we want to do in this is to get probably more interested and feel more involved in what is going on. You rightly said that the Stevenson Commission had a limited view in what sort of people they were looking for. How do you think that a different sort of commission, or perhaps a continuation of this process could be done in order to give greater confidence to the public as a whole that people of distinction, I think that is right, or representative of areas of importance in the country could be drawn?
  60. (Mr Cook) The Stevenson Commission was interesting in that not only did it involve the kind of people I have referred to but it went about the process in a much more transparent way than we had ever done before. The idea of advertising for membership of the House of Lords would have looked rather odd years ago but that is what they did and they had 3,000 applications, if I remember rightly. At the end of the day it was regretted the fact that there were many who they believed would make good members but whom they could not appoint. Some of them may in the fullness of time come forward. As I said earlier in reply to Mr White, if we are looking for people who have distinction, experience and expertise to bring then we should not then be surprised if they have already achieved recognition in our society. Mr Prentice had a very effective question to me the other day about the number who were knights. It is in the nature of people with distinction, experience or standing that some of them probably are going to have had that recognition. One of those who was knighted first was Sir Claus Moser who is an extremely distinguished scientist and statistician who was frequently quoted in aid by my party in opposition for his outspokenness about the policies of the government to which he was Chief Statistician.

  61. I am going to ask you one last question. Various people have suggested to us that under any of these reformed systems there might be a class or species of professional politician of a type post your generation, if I might put it that way, who would use the House of Lords as a stepping stone perhaps to get into the House of Commons, as some people might have used being an MEP, and some people have suggested that there might be an age bar in the Lords, a minimum age of 45 or 50, to try and winnow out people who wanted to be career politicians. Does this hold any attraction to you?
  62. (Mr Cook) It is a novel idea and I would want to think about it. An age bar of 45 would still be consistent with a reduction in the average age. I am not sure that I am attracted to any blanket rule. For example, Lord Stevenson, the Chief Executive of Centre Point, is 37 which is below 45. On the other consideration which you mentioned which prompted this suggestion, I have some difficulty with the idea that we should say that anybody is banned from standing for the House of Commons. It may have all sorts of arguments in favour of it, but at the end of the day the decision of who goes to the House of Commons is a decision for the people who vote the Members of Parliament into the House of Commons. One of the consequences of what we are doing is that we will have removed some of the remaining bars, for instance, Members of the House of Lords who were hereditary Peers can now stand for the House of Commons and, indeed, one has been elected and one has become an elected Peer whilst being there.

  63. The age suggestion is his!
  64. (Mr Cook) In principle, I am not attracted to having rules saying who cannot stand for the House of Commons.

    Annette Brooke

  65. Very briefly, I think I have read in the press that there is a suggestion that if the Government does not think that it can get something through in the form it would wish, there might not be anything at all for the House of Commons to vote on. Would you be able to say whether there definitely will be something on which a vote will be taken in the House of Commons?
  66. (Mr Cook) I have said vigorously and at some length in the debate on Thursday that, for me, it is a high priority to try and find the point on which we can proceed. I do not want to see the option that what we end up with is nothing. First of all, I think that is wrong in principle. Secondly, it leaves us with a Parliament which would be lop-sided in the sense that we are modernising the Commons and not modernising the second chamber. Thirdly, it would be a missed opportunity to provide an effective, modern second chamber. Fourthly, some of the problems of the House of Lords will not go away, so I want to see something happen. You ask can I give an absolute definite guarantee and I am conscious that there are ladies and gentlemen of the press waiting to write down headlines "Cook cannot guarantee anything will happen" so I am very tempted to give that guarantee in order that I do not get those headlines, but I need the co-operation of others if I am going to find that centre of gravity. I cannot do that all on my own.

    Mr Prentice

  67. We are going to help you though!
  68. (Mr Cook) Thank you, Gordon.

  69. Just very briefly, I am intrigued about these people of distinction, these "alpha" people that we need to legislate for us. There are a lot of people of distinction who get OBEs and MBEs and sometimes these people are home helps and sometimes these people are lollipop ladies. Do you think in Labour's second chamber that there will be room for people of distinction who are lollipop ladies?
  70. (Mr Cook) Indeed, and one of the strengths of the House of Commons is precisely that there are people in it from all walks of life, and that is the basis of our claim to be representative of the British people and an expression of the democratic will of the British people. I would hope that any system we evolve of direct or indirect election would enable a more mixed social composition of that second chamber. Whether we should change the remit of the Statutory Appointments Commission to require them to appoint a proportion of such people begs a number of very interesting and challenging questions, like how do you identify those that you then appoint, but I certainly take a view that if we are going to have a representative second chamber then, like the Commons, people from all walks of life have to be there.

  71. You have anticipated my question because it would be possible to change the terms of reference of the Statutory Appointments Commission to look at people who have never been to university, that come from manual occupations, it would be perfectly possible to change the remit if you wanted a second chamber which was in some measure appointed.
  72. (Mr Cook) I certainly would not suggest that we should have a requirement that they should have gone to university. I rather suspect that quite a few of the historic second chamber have not been to university. And I will not be drawn on that, hopefully nothing was heard! I would want to reflect on that, Gordon, without giving a snap answer. Yes, the whole point of democracy is that we are all equal voters, our views are of equal worth and worthy of equal expression in the House.

    Mr Trend

  73. Can I have a last quick question. This Government has, in fact, written a constitution for our nation, in effect, and set up a Parliamentary system, which it did in Edinburgh, which seems to work extremely well, and there they went for a unicameral solution. I know there is a lot guff about the House of Lords is sometimes (?) but it is not really. It seems to me that the instinct of the Government - and I can understand why it is the instinct of any Government - is to find a way in which one can placate those who say that the present system is not working, but that, essentially, they want to create power, which our system does in an almost unique way in the world, in the hands of patronage of the Prime Minister, and we are now trying to fix the second chamber so that it still does not harm the House of Commons. Why on earth do we want a second chamber? The Government which you support has started a system which did not have one which I would say is your first choice.
  74. (Mr Cook) Nobody has seriously argued the case for a bicameral devolved assembly for Scotland and the model we have is not just the creation of the Labour Party, it is famously the creation of a Commission which represented all parties except the Conservative Party, if I remember rightly, but it represented the major parties of Scotland, which did come to a consensual proposal which was not bicameral, so it was not simply our decision. They were right because, after all, the powers that extend the functions of this Scottish Parliament are not nearly as extensive as those of the Westminster Parliament and some of those issues, such as, for instance, our conduct of international relations, can be usefully ventilated in the second chamber. For instance, I noted that one of the Liberal contributors to our debate last week spoke in support of the idea (I think it is official Liberal Democrat policy) that the House of Lords should have the specific task of looking at treaties. There are those types of proposals which could not possibly arise in the Scottish context and it is working very well as a unicameral system, partly because it has a very heavy stress on committee work, more so than we do. This is something I think we can usefully copy from them. They put a lot of investment in committee structures into pre-legislative scrutiny. We do not do these things and we are therefore wise to retain our second chamber.

    Chairman

  75. If I could round off with a couple of questions, and one is a rather precise one. In a couple of areas in your proposals you have wanted to change what the Royal Commission recommended, particularly on issues to do with how long people serve. You insisted that the Wakeham idea of 15 years was too long and ought to come down and, similarly, you have suggested that, rather than have, as they propose, the elected element being elected at the same time as the European elections, that you smile more towards general elections. Is not the problem with both those proposals that it takes us in precisely the wrong direction? It takes us in the direction which makes this second chamber more like the first and brings it into areas of more potential conflict with it? Do we not, whatever we do, have to make it so distinctive in the way that it is composed, the way that it is elected, when it is elected and so on, the length of time that people serve, that there can be no question of it looking or being like the first chamber?
  76. (Mr Cook) On the first point you raise about the specific departures from Wakeham, you are correct, the White Paper is not a carbon copy of the Wakeham Commission. Indeed, Lord Wakeham himself has vigorously asserted that point. It is based on but is not a replica of the Commission's report. I personally think we are right about the 15-year term time. That does seem to me an excessively long period and if we adopted it, it would be by far the longest term of office of any second chamber of which we are aware. The longest term of office we are aware of is the nine years for the French second chamber, and if you had members elected in batches of two successive General Elections so that the term the office would be two parliaments, you would end up with something like eight or nine years, which is broadly similar to that, which itself is at the longer end of the scale. I think we were quite right to look intelligently at points where we felt Wakeham had not quite got it right. On your other point of principle, I find myself totally in agreement with you, Chairman. For me there is a great danger that if you end up with a second House of Commons along the corridor you will find a very marked change in the status, powers and prerogatives of the present House of Commons. I think a mixed membership goes a long way in order to meet that particular anxiety, quite apart from its own attractions in its own right of enabling people to come into the House who would not come into it through elections. I do think as we take this debate forward we need to consider carefully to what extent we wish to create a situation in which the second chamber would take on powers that are now seen by us and our electors as matters for the Commons. For instance, do our electors really want their tax to be settled by the second chamber?

  77. Just one final point, and this goes back to where we started and you were talking about this huge latitude within which we could hope to find a centre of gravity. I thought we were talking particularly this argument about elected Peers, but listening to you now and listening to discussions about direct election and so on, I wonder if we should regard that more widely. When you say in the White Paper that these are the areas that you want particularly to consult on, they are all areas circumscribed by the conversation started by Wakeham and then continued by the White Paper. What I am really asking you is are you now saying not just on the election point but more widely that people really should start thinking outside the box on all this, so that we can almost start over again? There was one form of indirect election proposed by Lord Bryce in 1919 that Members of the House of Commons should choose Members of the House of Lords. There are all kind of ways of doing this. Are you really saying that we can start thinking widely? Is that what "latitude" means?
  78. (Mr Cook) "Latitude" was your word, Chairman, not mine. First of all, indirect elections are inside the box in the sense they are canvassed within the White Paper, they are canvassed in ways that fairly - and I make no complaint about this - set out some of the problems there of which by far the greatest is 70 per cent of the electorate in the United Kingdom still has no devolved regional body, so if you are going down that road, you are going down that road on the basis of starting here and expanding as more regional bodies come on-stream. What is, to use your term, "out of the box" is any idea that that could become the sole or major basis for a constituted second chamber. I speak - and I stress this - personally as somebody who has perhaps had more experience of regional devolved bodies than many other Members and that could be a useful supplement to the direct election which would provide members with a democratic mandate but not the same direct democratic mandate as ourselves. Thus it would not provide a basis for challenging us in the Commons as an expression of the will of the people. That is certainly on the agenda. I would discourage people to go in for what I understand the fashionable term is "blue skies" thinking because this debate has gone on for some years and if we want to get proposals through in the context of this Parliament in time for the next General Election we have to move towards a decision, and therefore I would not encourage people to think outside the box, there is enough inside the box to think creatively.

  79. Are you suggesting that putting Lord Birt in charge of second chamber reform would not be a good idea, on balance?
  80. (Mr Cook) As far as I am aware, he has not volunteered.

  81. I have almost done with you but not quite. Can I just have one final, final go which is that in the search for consensus I would just put to you the point that is made very strongly in the Constitution Unit's observations on the White Paper which is that, in fact, constitutional reform does not proceed by consensus, it proceeds by people doing it and then other people adjusting to it having been done and accepting it. Indeed, this is the story of the Government's own constitutional reform programme largely. So is not the real task to find proposals that are coherent and principled so that we can argue for and implement rather than seek for a consensus which may never arrive?

(Mr Cook) I was careful when I spoke earlier not to impale myself on consensus as defined by unanimity. You are right that constitutional reform requires leadership not simply total unanimity. To take the case of devolution there was opposition to what we did in devolution which I think was the right course. What was important was that, of course, it did have a substantial popular support. There is popular support for reform of the second chamber. There is real popularity of the hereditary principle. There is, I think, popular support for a bicameral system rather than a unicameral system. You can identify areas where there is not consensus but that weight of popular demand. I think we need to find a way forward that also attracts that weight of popular demand even if there are those who resist it.

Chairman: Thank you very much for coming and talking to us so openly and frankly.