House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:08 pm on 10th January 2002.

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Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Liberal Democrat 8:08 pm, 10th January 2002

My Lords, in the spirit of the independence that this House is supposed to exemplify, I shall pay two brief tributes which have not yet been paid. The first tribute is due to the hereditary Peers who departed this place in a rather admirable fashion. I reflect on the fact that only one in 10 voted in the last vote when abolition of their class was considered by the House.

A tribute is also due to the Government. There has been some serious misrepresentation about what they are proposing in this reform in terms of surrendering power to pack the Lords, as some call it, by limiting the powers of political patronage to 60 per cent of the House and, crucially, by apportioning that 60 per cent between the three major parties—not on the basis of the seats won at the previous election but on the basis of votes garnered. The telling figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, indicate the way in which, during the Thatcher years, the already huge in-built Tory majority was added to by the appointment of twice as many Tory life Peers as Labour life Peers, and scarcely any from my own party, and they require reflection.

That said, if I were to be convinced that more of the same party machine dominated politics—exemplified by the current House of Commons—were what people really wanted, I might be persuaded to go for a fully or largely elected House. If I felt that all that Parliament needed in order to recapture public allegiance and to revive democracy was less independence, less experience and less expertise in this place, I might rethink my position. If I believed that the shambles of the railways, the demoralisation in our schools, the crisis in the NHS, the shame of our rampant crime and of our bursting jails, the increasing divisions in our society, and so on, would be improved by an elected, more politicised second Chamber, I would think again. If I sensed that we had contrived a new division of powers between two elected Houses so as to make them functionally complementary, I might contemplate that prospect.

Thus, although I broadly concur with the opening analysis of my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby in terms of the crisis of confidence in our democracy, I do not entirely share her analysis of the remedy. I align myself with my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf. Perhaps I may say that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who unavoidably cannot take part in this debate, has asked me to associate him with that position as well.

I admit that my instinct in contemplating reform of this place is to resort to that unrivalled vehicle of democracy, elections. To argue anything else, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, reminded us yesterday, is an uphill struggle in terms of the broadsheets and informed public opinion. We could easily end up adding to public disaffection with politics—the very disaffection that we seek to assuage—with the inevitable charge of "turkeys being unwilling to vote for Christmas", of party leaders being unwilling to give up patronage and of our contempt for the public. These are weighty considerations. I have been interested in what noble Lords have so sagely said in the course of the debate.

Why do I incline firmly against election—certainly under the present circumstances? First, the proposed mixed House would be neither fish nor fowl. It will be likely to prove less effective than an all-appointed, and fairly appointed, House. Many of the problems to which the hybrid option will give rise have not been thought through.

Let us take one example. Although we have a variegated House now, that hotchpotch of Peers is mostly sanctioned by centuries. The 120 elected Members would be different in kind, democratically speaking. Although they would be well advised not to claim superior legitimacy, I suspect that others outside this place would give it to them, and that in time they would assume it.

Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect such Members not to be full-time. In the course of standing for election, even of getting themselves selected—often by small party caucuses—they will have to commit themselves to that, or risk losing out to others who will. That will add to the force of their presence here, given that many other Peers cannot be anything like full-time, and would indeed lose much of their utility if they were. The full-timers will owe their position here entirely to party patronage—in the Labour Party, centrally controlled—and via the regional lists, even if we have open lists. They will come here to pursue a career and will be wholly vulnerable to the party control which is a necessary concomitant of seeking preferment as part of a career.

In terms of a wholly or mainly elected second House—favoured by the majority, but by no means all, of my own party—I do not find it conceivable that such a proposal would stand any prospect of getting through the House of Commons. In any event, it could only follow sensibly, it seems, on a new constitutional settlement between the two directly elected Houses with which we have not begun to grapple. What may have evolved in other countries cannot simply be transplanted here.

Perhaps I may refer briefly to the forceful speech made yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. He is as eloquent an exponent of a fully elected House as anyone. He made this comment:

"The argument is sometimes heard . . . that to have over 50 per cent of this House directly elected would be to produce a clone of the House of Commons. I do not believe that for an instant. The powers and functions of the two Chambers are clear . . . The upper House could not threaten the primacy of the Commons. We would continue to have strictly limited powers and functions . . . with no role in determining the government or controlling finance . . . Nor would the second Chamber be able to veto a Commons Bill or . . . any statutory instrument".—[Official Report, 9/1/02; col. 602.]

If that is what the noble Lord believes would be the practical outcome of a wholly elected second House, I have to dissent. What is more, if he were right—I think it inconceivable that that would be the case—we should have ended up with a full-time elected second Chamber, with second-rate powers, which could only attract second-rate people. Who could conceivably want a career in this place as compared with a full-time career in the other place? Such a proposal is unfeasible.

Perhaps I may comment on the issue of public opinion and where it sits. We have heard contributions on the matter from a number of speakers, including the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Clifton, Lord Richard, Lord Ampthill, Lord Butler and Lord Wakeham. The Royal Commission had a limited number of public meetings—nine, I believe—which a fraction over 1,000 people attended. The commission put out a questionnaire to which fewer than 1,000 citizens responded. Although that was a grotesquely inadequate consultation for such a hugely important public matter, none the less it represents the only deliberative consultation that has so far taken place. I cannot put any weight, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, did, on the various quick-fire polls—the latest being the ICM random telephone poll of 1,000 people just before Christmas. Of all the issues on earth that are not susceptible, sensibly, to that treatment, this surely is it.

It is worth noting that the strongest reply to any of the questions on composition in the Royal Commission questionnaire was on whether people of independence and experience should be in this place. Over two-thirds responded in favour.

I held a public meeting in my own home town on the issue of reform which was attended by 90 people. After a vigorous and intelligent debate, they voted 4:1 in favour of an appointed rather than an elected Chamber. It is still not too late for us to contemplate a proper public consultation. The very fact that we have no reliable base to tell us what the public truly think about these complicated issues seems, even now, to shout in favour of undertaking just such a consultation. Part of the public disaffection with politics in this country is precisely that we have inadvertently drifted away from the public in terms of consulting them, in terms of their feeling that they are consulted. The lack of that essential relationship between the elected and appointed legislators and the public leads to the present situation, which is worse than many Peers realise.

The 59 per cent turnout at the last general election was the worst in our history and the 24 per cent turnout at the European elections was by far the worst that we or any country have ever had, but even those figures omit the crucial fact that a full third of potential voters aged 25 and under have not registered to vote. If that statistic is cranked into the equation, we find that only one in three of the under-25s voted at the general election and not more than one in 10 did so at the European elections.

Party membership is plummeting. Many charities have a greater membership than all the political parties combined. More people voted in the "Big Brother" television vote than voted in the last election. Young citizens in particular do not identify with what we do. Among the public at large there is a simultaneous sensation of being put upon and ignored by Westminster and Whitehall, which increasingly garner power to themselves when not transferring it to Brussels.

People see party politics as over-controlled, party self-interested, destructive, regimented and generally unsympathetic. They find it difficult to identify with politicians who appear to have surrendered their independence and, as some would see it, their political honesty to their party Whips and to preferment. It is impossible for most of the public to relate to a House of Commons in which the Labour Government have not lost a single one of the more than 1,000 whipped votes since they came to power in 1997. At least in this place we manage to defeat the Government once in every four or five votes, but not a single vote has been carried against the Government in the Commons in nearly five years. The public do not understand that and it should not be the case. Unless we deal with the broader underlying issues, nothing that we do here will be sufficient.

That shows plainly that trying to deal with the problem by adding to the party political representation in this House is counterintuitive and counter-common sense. I say that with great reluctance, because, I repeat, my whole tenor is to give faith to the elective process. As others have correctly said, including the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in opening the debate, there is more than one channel of democracy. We in this House have our own particular way.

I shall say a quick word about regional lists. My noble friend Lord Wallace suggested that if we had open regional lists, we might encourage small splinter parties and a widening of representation in the House. I believe that that is wishful thinking. The proposed closed lists would be a double disaster, but even with open lists the constituencies are far too big for people to be able to identify with candidates, or even to have a passing knowledge of them, as we saw at the European elections. The almost inexorable tendency, therefore, is simply to follow the party line and the party candidate priority list.

The other main tendency, I fear, is not to vote at all. The public of this country will not vote for people of whom they have no knowledge and whom they have never seen and will never see. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, was far more phlegmatic than I am about the declining voter turnout.

My time is up. My final comment is that I would be amazed if we allowed the proposed removal of our already extremely limited powers over secondary legislation to proceed. That would be a catastrophic mistake. If ever anything was needed, it is greater power to deal with statutory instruments.