Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100
THURSDAY 10 JANUARY 2002
100. You then went on to say that the whipping
system in the House of Lords is quite gentle. If you are going
to elect that amount of people, the whipping system would have
to change, would it not because they would be party political
even on an open list, or whatever system we use, and you therefore
would have to change the whipping system?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) If I could go back for
a moment to the absolute key difference which is that there is
not an overall majority of any one party in the upper House, the
second chamberto answer the point that was made by Mr Brennan,
and we increasingly call it the second chamber. If there is no
overall majority, the outcome depends crucially on any two parties
out of three plus the cross-benchers who tend to be quite split
and they vote roughly in the same order as the parties do, so
you cannot see them as a block. You do find therefore that the
argument on the substance of the issue becomes really quite key.
If there were heavy whipping in the House of Lords, the almost
immediate reaction is to push the other two parties together because
the resentment about whipping if it is perceived to be for a cause
that is not broadly accepted (and, frankly, we saw this over the
countering terrorism legislation) becomes much greater.
101. I do not disagree with that, but let us
take the European elections in the South West where we have a
UKIP member, let us say other parties come up and you have blocks
coming up through whatever list system of another party, it could
be the NSP or any party. Are you therefore not going to create
that by having blocks all over the Lords sitting on those red
benches which actually are putting the major parties into a position
where they are going to have to whip?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) Frankly, I do not see
it. The suggestion is that there would be a five per cent bar
in the same way that there is in Germany. In other words, unless
you could carry five per cent of the electorate you would not
be entitled to form a party, so that would rule out the most extreme,
102. You say that but the turn-out is so bad
in elections in this country, and elections for the House of Lords
I think will do even worse, how are you going to get the bandwagon
going except through party political organisations? Are you not
going to create that problem because it is so low that for a party
to get five per cent you could achieve it on a very low turn-out?
I accept that it is hypothetical but it is possible.
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) The analogy that springs
to my mind, Mr Liddell-Grainger, is probably with the European
elections which have a pretty low turn-out and although there
was a brief appearance by the Greens apart from that we have not
seen fragmentary parties suddenly finding themselves represented
as European members. I do not really see this as a very great
danger. I also think that the extent to which a fragmentary party
could make a difference to the outcome, given that you have got
two large parties and one medium-sized party in the House of Lords
and no overall majority, it is very hard to see how that would
make enough difference because basically at the moment the outcome
depends upon which two parties see eye to eye as compared to the
third, and that pretty well determines the outcome. It is much
less important, therefore, to whip every last person in line because
the majorities are fairly substantial once you get two out of
three parties agreeing on something.
103. Then when you have your changeover period,
and you are talking about every five years or ten years, whatever
the election will be, is that not therefore going potentially
to lead to conflict?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) On our suggestion, which
I mentioned to Mr Brennan, we would probably have two or a maximum
of three tranches of newly elected members coming in but there
would be no further changes beyond that, so the first group would
probably be in 2004, which is what Lord Wakeham suggests, and
it is unlikely you will have the emergence of many new parties
by then. The second tranche would be in 2009, if one had a majority
of elected members, so the whole thing would be in place relatively
soon, within nine or ten years. If the House remained very large,
that is to say no way was found of encouraging life Peers to leave
the House at a faster rate than natural attrition which, as I
said, is about 18 a year, then you would, in our view, have to
have a third tranche, but we would not want to see that because
we do not want to see a very large second chamber.
(Sir George Young) Also by the nature of whipping
in the upper House, the terms of trade are slightly different
because you are not standing for re-election and so therefore
the sanctions are virtually minimal.
104. You would be under the Government's proposals?
(Sir George Young) Not under Wakeham's but possibly
under the Government's.
105. I am talking about the Government's. You
would actually be up for election which would mean that whipping
(Sir George Young) Which is why I am against those
106. I am talking about the Government proposals
at the moment and I think you have answered. Can I come on to
one last thing, the power of veto on the House of Commons. How
do both of you see the power of veto on the legislation that is
going to the second chamber?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) As you know, there is
hardly a power of veto. There are only two areas where there is
a power of veto and one I have mentioned already which is the
parliamentary term which I think we would probably agree to. The
second is the hardly ever used veto of secondary legislation and
the point about that hardly ever used veto is I think it has only
been used once in recent years which was to insist that the Greater
London Authority should have the same electoral leaflets going
out to electors and have the money for that as any other democratic
local authority. There was a row about that and we voted down
a proposal which would have prevented that money being used. That
veto is really only useful in the sense of drawing a line and
it is a very rarely drawn line. As long as the House of Lords
broadly accepts some version of the Salisbury Convention regarding
anything that appears in a manifesto, I do not think that the
Government has any serious worries. There is not a veto, there
is only a delaying power.
107. I think "delaying" is the better
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) The delay is very short
now and it is a maximum of a year.
108. Do you think that that is right the way
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) I do broadly because
I think the great usefulness of the House of Lords is that it
can get the Government to think again, largely because the Government
is concerned about its legislative programme. We are willing in
our party to consider, for example, something which Robin Cook
has suggested which is an idea of some carry over provided that
the Bill has gone through pre-legislative scrutiny and provided
that the parties can agree about that. There is every reason for
being more efficient in this area but carry over is a very significant
instrument for the Opposition parties and I do not think they
should be asked to give that up unless there has been a proper
approach to the legislation in advance and agreement that this
faster method should be used. It would certainly help clear a
lot of the backlog.
109. What is your view, Sir George?
(Sir George Young) I would leave the powers virtually
as they are.
110. One point comes out of part of Ian's questioning.
Shirley Williams in particular, you want a much smaller House?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) Yes.
111. If you have only, as you are suggesting,
15 or 20 per cent appointed in that much smaller House and yet
somehow we still want this to be some kind of house of experts,
we are talking only about maybe 50 or 60 such people in that smaller
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) Slightly more.
112. Is there not a real problem there?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) I think realistically
one cannot get much below 400, so you are looking at something
of the order of 80 and that, if they attend pretty regularly,
is not an unreasonable sort of figure because you have also got
as well the experts, do not forget, and we keep calling them experts
but "independent members" is a better way of describing
them, and you have also got, significantly, the fact that in the
House of Lords there should be some movement towards trying to
suggest that for the regions some of the people that are put on
the lists are people who would deliver to the House of Lords their
own expertise and experience and would not necessarily be, as
George was saying, people primarily seeking re-election. It is
the sort of thing that people will do when they have experience
and they want to contribute to legislation but they do not wish
to make a permanent career in politics.
113. Everything you talk about seems to be hinged
around the present set-up and we have to look after the life Peers
and all the other lords in there. Why do we not just abolish the
House of Lords and start from scratch?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) Because the executive
is too powerful in this country. If you abolished the House of
Lords and had a very heavily whipped Commons, what you are going
to get is a situation where even when the executive steps over
those intangible lines that lie between a dictatorship and a democracy,
there would not, in my view, be adequate power to stop that. It
would require extraordinary courage by a great many MPs putting
their careers and families' incomes at risk, and the evidence
is pretty clear that that does not happen in any country anywhere.
114. We would have the protection of elections
every four or five years.
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) We might not because
do not forget that that in itself rests on the ability of the
House of Lords to veto any extension. There have been in the past
one or two attempts to try to extend the term of parliament and
some of them very justified like the 1935-45 Parliament but, knowing
the House of Lords had that power of veto, the Government of the
day had to very carefully put together an all-party agreement
to get an agreement that no election should be held in 1939-40,
and that was very important because it meant, of course, that
it brought the other parties into coalition, which was exactly
right in a situation where you were not going to have elections.
It would put an awful lot of our unwritten constitution at risk
to try to abolish the second House.
115. You said yesterday in your speech that
at the end of the day there will have to be compromises and that
there are going to be bad compromises and good compromises. What
would be a bad compromise for you? Less than 50 per cent elected,
and a good compromise over 50 per cent?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) An acceptable compromise.
I think there should be a majority.
(Sir George Young) Would not the thing to do when
we debate it be to have an amendment that starts off at 100 per
cent elected and then works downwards until you get a majority
in our House, and that is the point at which you strike the balance?
Mr Prentice: A cunning plan!
116. One of the reasons we are carrying out
this inquiry is to come up with a solution where all of us around
this table can agree a consensus. Whether that happens remains
to be seen but hopefully at the end of the day we will be able
to come up with something which will be helpful to the process.
I tend to agree that if there is no abolition of the House of
Lords there has to be a democratically accountable second chamber.
I do not subscribe to the view, as Lord Wakeham has said, that
he is looking after the integrity of certainly what he would perceive
as the first chamber, and the electoral integrity over what we
would have to subscribe to. I believe that that is an argument
put forward by the people who want to have the status quo.
Would that be your view?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) No, it would not be
my view, Mr Wright, but what I would reiterate is at the moment
the job of scrutiny is not being adequately done between our two
chambers in this Parliament. One obvious example is the huge amount
of European legislation which is not really adequately scrutinised,
and we all know it, and the vast amount of secondary legislation,
some of which is completely unscrutinised. No elected person or
appointed person in the other place actually looks at an awful
lot of it at all. That worries me because we are not carrying
out our obligations to our citizens who elected us, or in my case
once elected us, to ensure that the laws they are supposed to
abide by are looked at by the people who are elected or, if not
by the people elected, at least by somebody else who then returns
it to the elected House, which we do, to consider. I think there
has to be a far lower level of legislation than we have at the
present time in this country. Frankly, it would be simply irresponsible
to get rid of the chamber which can do a lot this work. To give
you an example of the Counter Terrorism Bill, at the end of the
day the Bill that came out was much more aware of the inroads
on civil liberties and where they were not necessary for the crusade
against terrorism as distinct from when the Bill started, and
I believe in that case the upper House, the second chamber, did
a reasonable job which enabled the Commons to think again about
some aspects of this and at the end of the day we got a better
117. The Scottish Parliament, for instance,
scrutinises their own legislation. Is there any reason why the
House of Commons should not do their own scrutiny?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) At the moment they clearly
do not take full advantage of the opportunity they have to scrutinise
because there are only 24 hours in the day. I am struck, having
been an MP for nearly 20 years, at the extraordinary increase
in the amount of work that you ladies and gentlemen do on constituency
questions. When I was in the House of Commons I got about 300
letters a week, which was among the highest. I suspect that a
lot of you get 300 letters a week even if it is not at the high
end of the spectrum so you are far more pushed than we were. The
consequence of that (and also the rise in the use of select committee
which I think is excellent) is that there simply is not time in
the Commons any more to scrutinise in detail. You know and I know
that there have been significant Bills which have been guillotined
with sometimes whole groups of clauses never debated at all in
this House and we come to them completely clean, nobody has discussed
them or amended them or anything and we then have to look at them.
So unless the Commons changes its pattern of work, I cannot see
any rapid way of change.
118. That is a question of reorganisation rather
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) I will pass that on
to George because he knows more about the Scottish Parliament
than I do.
(Sir George Young) That is very handsome recognition.
I think the answer is we could scrutinise that legislation if
we had less of it but because we have so much we deal with it
rather quickly and the upper House adds value to that process.
If you removed the upper House and wanted the same quality of
legislation, you would have to reduce it very dramatically in
quantity. I am not sure that would be acceptable to the Government.
My party would be delighted if the Labour Party proposed the abolition
of the second chamber because they would see it as further evidence
of all sorts of tendencies, but the truth is that the second chamber
does add value to the democratic process and I do not think it
is seriously proposed by any major party that it should be removed.
119. To start with a simple question really,
do you think the whole agenda of reform of the House of Lords
should take on board the need to reconnect the British public
with the democratic processes?
(Baroness Williams of Crosby) I missed the second