Memorandum by The Baroness Platt of Writtle
LETTER TO THE LORD CHANCELLOR
It was my intention to speak in the House of
Lords debate on 9 & 10 January, but as there were at least
70 speakers, I decided to write this letter instead.
I spoke in the debates in our House on 14 October
1998 (columns 980-82) and 30 March 1999 (columns 288-90) and made
a submission to the Royal Commission on 24 April 1999. I still
adhere to the opinions I expressed then.
As is well known, I am an engineer and believe
strongly in the dictum "If it ain't broke don't fix it".
Often disturbing the status quo in both mechanical and human systems
results in more trouble, however well-intentioned the changes.
The first stage of reform of this House has
settled down and worked reasonably well. Where is the urgency
for change when we are deeply involved in a long battle against
terrorism, both at home and abroad; waiting lists for treatment
in our health service grow longer, with acute shortage of doctors
and nurses; and both the tube and the national railway system
need energetic leadership and considerable financial investment
if they are to operate safely, efficiently and punctually? In
the public mind, which should be the driving force in a democracy,
the solution to all those problems would have priority over changes
to the House of Lords.
I have read the Consultation Paper, and agree
with many of the proposals on the summary pages at the beginning.
The House will, of course, continue to cede final pre-eminence
to the elected Commons. However, I would lay emphasis on the importance
of its present powers to consider and revise legislation and scrutinise
the Executive, and debate and report on public issues as stated,
which must include requiring the Government and the House of Commonswhichever
political party is in powerto reconsider proposed legislation
and to take account of any cogent objections to it (p5 Rec2 Wakeham).
The Government recognised that duty (p11) and the necessity for
our House to have the power to press the Government hard to justify
its actionsthat is particularly necessary if any political
party has a substantial majority in the Commons, where the Whips
can command obedience.
The problem then is how to set up the membership
of the House of Lords over the years so that the Government of
the day does not hold the majority here as well as in the Commons.
That will be very difficult to control in bringing together existing
Life Peers, a substantial elected element, and the work of the
suggested Appointments Commission. I cannot see how those numbers
can be made to add up, so that the Opposition Parties in the House
of Lords can hold the Government to account in the manner required.
It is vital this should be achieved.
I am glad the Government is not going for a
wholly elected House, since like them I believe it would result
in damaging conflict between the two Houses, both feeling equally
legitimate, whatever the method of election. The Government also
accepts the prime importance of the independent crossbenchers
in the work of our House; they would disappear as election inevitably
leads to political polarisation. One of the virtues of the Lords,
which I believe is in line with the wishes of the electorate,
is that with a substantial independent element the House is not
nearly as partisan as the "Other Place". Most people
in this country are not very political. What they do want is efficient
and effective public services to serve their needs. Very often
a consensus on policy to operate over a period of time, with the
opportunity for minor improvements where necessary, would serve
the public better than substantial changes of policy after elections
to demonstrate political power.
The statutory Appointments Commission proposed
must operate on a non-political basis and bring in to the House
experienced men and women in a variety of fields with much needed
talents and skills, so that they can exercise their influence,
knowledge based, on both legislation and the work of Select Committees.
I believe, not surprisingly, that is particularly important in
the fields of Science, Engineering and Technology which remain
scarce skills, unfortunately. As the present Chairman of the Lords
Select Committee for Science and Technology said recently, its
members try to be useful in their choice of subjects studied by
the Committee. Over the last few years it has had considerable
influence on both national and international policytheir
reports on antibiotics, air travel and health, forensic science,
non food crops and the public understanding of science to cite
a few examples.
I am glad we shall continue to enjoy the influence
of the Law Lords and the Bishops, both groups of members with
important experience and ethical opinions. I am sorry the numbers
of Bishops may be reduced. If that had meant some representation
from non-conformist Churches and other religions that would have
been understandable, but it does not. I hope that will be looked
I do believe in the continuation of a part-time
unpaid House, which allows men and women to stand, who are substantially
involved in a wide range of fields of work, both paid and voluntary,
to bring that experience to bear on our work. It is important
that expenses are generously paid, and maybe loss of earnings,
so that no one is prevented for financial reasons from giving
their service to the House.
In the Annual Report of the House of Lords,
I am always impressed by the fact that although we carry out more
sitting days, our costs per member and total costs are minuscule
compared with MP's and MEP's. I think the part-time, unpaid rule
should also apply to elected members as it does in Local Government.
We cannot have one rule for elected members, and one for those
appointed, as they will start to be regarded unequally, which
would be difficult to cope with. Like a good many other things
in the work of the Lords, the public, and even members in the
"Other Place", have a very little knowledge of the more
or less voluntary nature of a lot of hard work carried out there
by members of all parties, and crossbenchers, both on the floor
of the House and on Committees, and long may it continue!
The members, whether elected or appointed must
be people of probity as the Government lays down, which will be
one of the responsibilities of the Appointments Commission to
check and if necessary enforce. I am glad too that they will appoint
more women, as they form about 50 per cent of the population and
need to bring their point of view to bear on Affairs of State.
Like the Royal Commission, I would like to see
members either appointed or elected for 15 years, because that
would give them sufficient security to encourage a spirit of independence.
In one's first few years, one is leaning the ways of the House
and, whether politically or otherwise, it is difficult to go against
the stream, so that a longer term of office is necessary for them
to exert that necessary spirit of independence. I agree with the
idea of voluntary retirement as one gets older, but we have many
examples in the House of octogenarians, and older, contributing
most valuably to our work, so I do not want to see retirement
becoming compulsory, particularly in the important context of
a part-time unpaid House.
I hope the two days' debate in the House of
Lords will be listened to, and the responses to this Consultation
Paper, so a better Bill will eventually be considered. I am glad
the House of Commons Public Administration Committee is considering
the matter. However, if it is to be properly and knowledgeably
considered, I still hope a joint Parliamentary Committee of both
Houses will be set up, so that some sort of consensus can be reached
over such an important constitutional matter. If it takes more
time, so be it.