House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:22 pm on 9th January 2002.

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Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour 9:22 pm, 9th January 2002

My Lords, I believe that the House of Lords should become a House of comment and not another House of Commons directly elected by the people. As a House of comment, deliberation, debate and revision, the House of Lords can, in a complementary manner, support the pivotal role of the Commons as the pre-eminent decision-making forum in the British body politic.

In that role, the House of Lords can join all the other bodies which in effect support and comment on the work of the Commons. Incidentally, I point out that all the other bodies to which I refer are unelected and unaccountable: the judiciary; the Monarchy; and, yes, the press and the media. When, for example, did the presenters of the "Today" programme ever stand for election or make themselves accountable to the public? And yet they powerfully influence the political debate in this country; more so indeed than the majority of your Lordships. Before bacon and eggs each morning, it is the "Today" programme, not us, which determines the daily political fry-up.

However, no one suggests, other than perhaps the former Lord Stansgate, that all those other commenting bodies—the press, the media and the judges—should be directly elected. And nor should we as a House of Lords be directly elected. We should rather concentrate on our current job and reform our antiquated practices. We should strive to be an effective, specialising, revising, advising and supervising House, bringing added value to the body politic by becoming that House of comment which I described.

Let me make two recommendations to propel us on that path. First, our Committee system needs root and branch reform. Committees of the Whole House should be abandoned and replaced by Committees in the Moses Room or wherever, using a modern, business-like approach to our work. We should jettison the grace notes and curlicues of custom and practice used in this Chamber, which may be quaint and quixotic to the onlooker but which only serve to impede proper progress and effective debate on legislation that requires contemporary elucidation and not ancient obfuscation.

As for the Select Committees, never has so much talent been assembled for so little return. As a proud member of European Union Sub-Committee C—note how we hide behind the anonymity of the letter "C"—I am appalled that the wonderful array of talent, experience and expertise found among my fellow committee members leads us to write reports on foreign common and security policy which frequently fail to reach the Floor of the House for engaged debate; whose tired and unserviceable presentation makes them an unappetising read. These reports are seldom read outside the House or sent to those who might benefit from them, such as British Members of the European Parliament, because little attention is given to who might be their core audience.

Moreover, I am aggrieved to be part of a committee system whose method of taking evidence is antiquated, inefficient and, at times, downright lacking in civility. On making my way to the committee one day, I was astonished to discover languishing in the Corridor a lone and unattended distinguished European ambassador who had given up his time to come and give evidence to our committee. Common courtesy requires at the very least that he should have been chaperoned and refreshed with tea and biscuits. We did not do that. Instead we boast in our annual report about how proud we are of doing everything on the cheap.

When a witness comes for his or her Star Chamber grilling, further indignities ensue. We still employ an out-of-date recording system, which entails placing the stenographers directly in the sight line of chairmen and witnesses. I looked on in astonishment recently when the Secretary of State for Defence was told to "budge over a bit" because half of the committee could not see him properly.

What about the fraud of holding meetings that are open to the public so that we can claim to be an open, transparent and democratic second Chamber? Our system does everything in its powers to dissuade the public from scrutinising our work. First, we have the farce of finding the ever-changing committee rooms, whereby half the room allocation in the House is peremptorily changed in an attempt to throw participant Peers and the public alike off the trail. Very occasionally an explorer of Shackletonian endurance will find our committee rooms and enter, where he is greeted with stares of surprise and disbelief. But no other welcome is offered. No effort is made to accommodate or inform the unexpected guest about the nature of the inquiry taking place. Soon the member of the public tires and quits this South Pole of democracy, emerging anew into Parliament Square a sadder and no wiser man than when he entered it.

My anxieties about the present European Union Committee system were brought to a head last autumn when the media became hot under the collar about the so-called European army—the European rapid reaction force. Sub-Committee C had published an excellent and informative report on this subject a couple of months previously, but because of the lack of resources and the absence of an established press officer for the Lords, our report was rendered impotent for the purposes of enlightening and enlivening the public debate. No one had heard of it and certainly we had done little to promote it. Our Olympian aloofness means that our report stayed with the gods.

I turn now to the future composition of the House. It has been little appreciated that the Wakeham report does, in effect, call for an indirectly-elected House, alongside those directly elected from the regions, by requiring the remaining 80 per cent or so broadly to reflect the proportion of votes cast for each party at the previous election. The problem with Wakeham is that no satisfactory method is offered of immediately achieving this de facto proportional representation on the surcease of the general election.

I can offer my solution, which I call the "Manchester United squad system" in that, like manager Alex Ferguson perming 11 players on the field out of a wider squad of 30, each political party in the House will field a team of Peers from which will be drawn the quota of Peers eligible to vote according to the percentage of votes cast for the party at the previous general election. Without elaborating on the details of my proposal, which I have summed up in a paper available from my office, I can say that the system has, I believe, the following virtues.

First, it could be enacted immediately after each general election and would be effective from the start of Parliament, unlike Wakeham. Secondly, it would ensure an indirectly-elected House drawn from the popular vote at that election. Thirdly, it would support a proportional representation system that sharply distinguishes the House as a House of comment from the House of Commons, the home of direct elections. Fourthly, it would provide continuity because the wider team from which the quota is drawn does not have to change; and, fifthly, it would provide an easy bridge from the current revised House to the new House in a final form, including the flexibility of setting a cap on the size of the House of 750, 600 or, indeed, a smaller number, if desired.

The sixth virtue is that it would accommodate both working Peers and occasional Peers—the unique feature of the current House. Finally, it would allow all Peers to retain equal speaking, voting and all other rights and also allow parties to retain (and honour) senior party supporters without requiring them to be permanently on tap as voting fodder. Peers who were ill, absent on business, or otherwise unavailable, would not be letting down their party.

I shall submit my ideas to the consultation on the White Paper, but it is my firm belief that we now have a golden opportunity to establish a second Chamber fit for the 21st century. We must find the alchemy to secure that noble end.