Speaking at a Seminar organised by the Constitution Unit at the School of Public Policy, University College London chaired by Professor Robert Hazell, Sir George spoke of Lords Reform and sketched out the proposals which he was working on, with a cross-party group of MP's.
The text follows.
1. Can I begin with some general stock-taking remarks?
2. Whoever said No Stage 1 without Stage 2 was right. The fear was expressed right at the beginning that if Lord’s reform was split into two discrete stages, the momentum would stall after Stage 1. A working if imperfect model would be destroyed, and the interim House – wholly appointed – would by default become Stage 2. That risk is even higher when, as in this case, the nature of Stage 2 was not set out when Stage 1 was embarked on.
3. Margaret Beckett argued that breaking the process into 2 made it more likely that Stage 2 would be embarked on. We were told that the 92 hereditary peers would be the grit in the constitutional oyster that would produce the pearl of reform.
4. A colourful metaphor, but wholly inaccurate.
5. Indeed, in 1998, the Government told us that Stage 2 would be approved by Parliament by the time of the last General Election and Lord Wakeham assumed that the first round of elections to the reformed Upper House would take place in June 2001.
6. Michael Foot once told the story of a conjuror in his Devonport constituency. He asked one member of his audience for a gold watch; and another for a silk handkerchief. He placed the handkerchief over the watch and then produced a wooden mallet, which he brought down with some force on the handkerchief and watch. He then turned to his audience and said “I’m frightfully sorry; I’ve forgotten the rest of the trick.”
7. That is roughly what has happened with Lords’ reform.
8. So the lesson to be learned, when we next embark on constitutional reform, is that we should have a clear idea where we are going.
9. My second point derives from that on. While you should be clear about where you want to end up, you should be flexible about speed and transitional arrangements. It is more important to secure agreement about what sort of a House we should end up with, than to try to achieve it quickly. And you are more likely to secure that agreement if you are flexible.
10. My reason for asserting this is that people’s perception of reform will be coloured by what it means for them personally. The main objectors to a predominantly elected House in my Party comes from the House of Lords, and I believe we should try to carry them with us.
11. Several hundred people were made Life Peers, and believed it meant what it said. We must avoid repeating the unceremonious dumping of the hereditaries, which was undiplomatic and discourteous. So, even if it makes the journey longer, we should be flexible and generous with the existing Life Peers.
12. My third point is that the opponents of further reform treat the issue as a one dimensional contest. If one House gains in legitimacy or authority or credibility, then the other must lose. It is compared to the Lords v. Commons Annual Tug-of-War on the Green, which the Lower House has won since the virile young hereditaries have been banished from the Upper House.
13. The reality is that the two Chambers are partners in a joint endeavour to hold the Executive to account.
14. Lord Wakeham put it well in his report “Our ambition for the reformed second chamber is that it should enhance the overall ability of Parliament as a whole to hold the Government to account. It should do this by using its particular strengths to develop arrangements which complement and reinforce those of the House of Commons.”
15. I strongly believe that any reform should strengthen Parliament as a whole, not least because much of what this Government has done has weakened Parliament.
16. My final opening point is that the status quo is not acceptable. Not only do we have a wholly appointed Chamber that is far too big – 708 members; but it is a Chamber nominally appointed by the Prime Minister, who also determines its size, the balance between the two parties and the timing of new appointments. It vests in one man an intolerable amount of power in our democracy. Master of the Lower House and Patron of the Upper House. Tony Benn would liken this to the power of the Monarch five hundred years ago.
17. Hence the determination of a number of us from all parties to kick start the stalled process of reform, about which more in a moment. The shop-steward of the Cross Party Group is Paul Tyler, the LibDem Chief Whip and the mainplayers are Robin Cook, Ken Clarke, Tony Wright and myself.
18. Having set out some opening thoughts, can I next deal with the principal arguments against the type of reform that we will be proposing?
19. There are two; the Rival mandate argument; and the British Rail argument – it will produce the wrong sort of politician.
20. The rival mandate argument alleges that, if we have a predominantly elected second Chamber, it will challenge the supremacy of the Commons - a point mentioned by the PM shortly before the vote in 2003. However, the second Chamber is clearly defined as complementary and, in the end, subordinate to the Commons. Its powers are given to it by the Commons, which is pre-eminent, and they cannot be unilaterally changed.
21. There is an argument that that settlement might somehow be subject to moral challenge, if the Upper House had an elected element in it and that there would be tension between the two Houses if both claimed democratic legitimacy
22. I strongly disagree. In the Commons, we are all elected for one Parliament on the same day after a vigorous campaign on the basis of a party manifesto. We are elected to the pre-eminent House that sustains the Executive and produces the Prime Minister, and we submit ourselves for re-election.
23. None of those conditions would exist for the upper House if it were to be elected on the basis we are proposing. Many of its Members would not be elected at all and would have no mandate. Those who were elected would be elected at different times and on different mandates, and it will be impossible for one party to control the Upper House. The notion that electing some or even most of the Members could lead to the conversion of the upper House into a rival assembly where one party claims a competing mandate is simply unsustainable.
24. The European Parliament used to be wholly appointed and it is now wholly elected. I detect no appetite for national parliaments to give it more powers, simply because it is more representative.
25. The British Rail argument asserts that electing two thirds of Members will produce the wrong sort of politician. There is a view in the Upper House that "We do not want the rough trade from the other end of the building up here." Lord Wakeham said in his speech on this matter that elections would produce
26. "A second Chamber that was a clone of the other place, full of professional politicians"
27. I am not quite sure how he classified himself in making that comment. The late Lord Longford made the point less tactfully five years ago:
28. "We would get the dregs."
29. I think that anxiety is misplaced. Behaviour in our House is less a function of the sort of people we are, than of the conditions under which we operate. We are Members of Parliament in a highly political, dominant Chamber to which we have to be re-elected. When we move from this charged environment to the calmer one at the other end of the building, our behaviour changes. Perhaps the best examples are those of Lords Wakeham and Hurd. When MP’s are in our current environment, we behave as Members of Parliament, but, translated into the more reflective atmosphere of the upper House, where Members do not have to be re-elected and Whips have a slender grip on discipline, people behave differently. They make shorter, more courteous speeches, less flavoured by political invective.
30. Crucially, if they do not have to be re-elected, they will not have to emulate some of the partisan characteristics of my House to which Members of the other place – and indeed of the public - take such exception.
31. 30 seconds on history. In the last Parliament we had Wakeham – whose recommendations I assume you are broadly familiar with. After Wakeham was published, the Government published a White Paper which gave the impression they endorsed the recommendations. It contained one sentence that comes straight from Yes Minister
32. "There are however a number of areas where further consideration of the practical effects of certain recommendations has led the Government to consider some modification of the precise recommendations so as to ensure implementation of the Commission's principles in the most effective way possible."
33. Then we had the Cunningham Joint committee in this Parliament, which recommended a vote in both Houses on seven options.
34. Just before that, we had the astonishing volte-face by the PM. He renounced the basis on which he had gone to the country on a manifesto committing Labour to reform of the House of Lords making the second chamber “more representative and democratic.” And said he was against a Hybrid House, implying that he wanted one that was fully appointed.
35. I have no doubt this was influential within the Labour Party. Days later, the Commons rejected all seven options, and the House of Lords produced a massive majority for a wholly appointed House. Then the Joint Committee announced they were not prepared to carry on.
36. We then had the September 2003 White Paper and in the Queens Speech in November that year, we were promised a Bill to remove the hereditaries and establish a statutory appointments commission. That was abandoned in March last year, as it would run the risk of simply cementing the status quo with no elections. Then we had the statement at the Labour Party conference last year that the reformed second chamber should be “as democratic as possible.” Lord Falconer said "We need between now and the preparation of our manifesto to identify a solution which makes for a representative chamber and then commit ourselves to it in the manifesto." That is exactly what we are doing for him!
37. Then on Monday we had the bombshell from Lady Amos, Leader in the Lords. Asked if the long-awaited plan on future composition would be in the manifesto for the election expected on May 5, she said: "No. I think there is still more work to be done because if you put four different people in a room, regardless of which party they come from, there will not just be four different views but you'll probably get eight different views about composition."
38. So what next?
39. The aim of our group is to influence manifestoes; to raise the profile of an issue which the Government and possibly others hope will go away.
40. We believe that the gap between the opposing sides of the argument is not unbridgeable and that there is a way through. The 80% option was defeated by only 3 votes, amidst some confusion and alleged tactical voting encouraged by the Whips. A majority of MP’s supported one of the majority elected options and I believe that consideration is crucial.
41. We will propose a House where no one party should have a majority.
42. We want it to be more representative than the present one, which is predominantly male, London and South East based and with an average age of 67.
43. Its functions would be broadly the same - review, scrutiny and deliberation.
44. We would also leave the powers alone at this stage. The problem is its composition – we need to sort that out. If you broaden the terms of debate, you give opponents of change an opportunity to delay the process
45. We are interested in a dispute resolution procedure to replace the traditional ping-pong at the end of each session. Industrial relations have moved on from unions v. management arguments of the 60’s and 70’s. We need a similarly non-adversarial process for dealing with Lords Amendments in November and we will putting proposals for a committee to sort that out.
46. We want a mixed membership, the majority elected – the exact percentage will have to await publication of our report, but in the Press Conference we said around 70%.
47. When I have spoken on Lords Reform, have said that I would like the two thirds who are party politicians to be directly elected by open rather than closed lists. By definition, those people will not be political innocents and there is no reason for them not to go through the single gentle encounter with the electorate proposed by Lord Wakeham - an encounter much less taxing than anything MP’s have to go through
48. The PM said he didn’t like a mixed House. But it was mixed before – with hereditaries and Life Peers - it is difficult to think of two more diverse sources of arrival into the Upper House - and of course there are Bishops and Judges. The Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament have members who come in through different doors. And other countries successfully combine elected and appointed members of their second chambers.
49. It should be much smaller. Wakeham said 550, and the Govt White Paper 600. Both are far too big.
50. We have 660 MP’s, a number that is scheduled to go down when we lose the presence of a number of Scottish colleagues. Even with 630, I believe that the House will still be far too big. It is difficult to see why the revising Chamber has to have 600. No one has proposed that it should carry out the demanding constituency role that MP’s carry out; nor is it proposed that it should provide more members of the Executive than it does at the moment. So we are aiming low – at 385.
51. On method of election, we propose STV on Regions co-terminous with Euro-regional constituencies at the same time as a General election with the opportunity to include preferences from different parties.
52. The elected Members will have Wakeham type terms - three Parliaments comprising one non renewable term, and one third out at each dissolution.
53. We would leave the Ministers in and the Bishops, though probably fewer at around 16.
54. An Appointments Commission would appoint the non-elected element; but the appointed members would not serve for Life – they will serve the same term as the elected Members.
55. We would look to the SSRB to resolve remuneration issues.
56. The transitional arrangements are important. If you want a smaller House, and want to start the process of change, you need to encourage some to go for Voluntary retirement; and others to stand for election. Then we propose progressively to reduce the numbers of those remaining over three Parliaments by a process of internal election by the Parties.
57. We intend to produce a Bill – which has not been done before – and then to have a debate, possibly in Westminster Hall if we can secure it in February.
58. So that is the outline of the plot.