Proceedings of the Special Committee
Issue No. 11 - Evidence - April 5, 2017
OTTAWA, Wednesday, April 5, 2017
The Special Senate Committee on Senate Modernization met this day at
12:01p.m. to consider methods to make the Senate more effective within the
current constitutional framework.
Senator Thomas J. McInnis (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Honourable senators, I call this meeting of the Special
Senate Committee on Senate Modernization to order.
During this phase of its work, the committee is focusing on the role of
the Senate in Canadian governance and its relationship with the House of
Commons. In particular, we are looking at how the Senate can best complement
the House of Commons without either duplicating or overpowering it.
In looking at this issue, our committee is looking for expert
perspectives on the House of Lords and its relationship with the House of
Commons. The conventions, practices, rules and expectations that structure
the relationship are of particular interest.
Today we are honoured to have as witnesses: The Right Honourable The Lord
Wakeham. He joined the House of Lords in April 1992. A member of the House
of Commons from 1974 to 1992, Lord Wakeham was the chairman of the Royal
Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords, which in January 2000
published A House for the Future.
The Wakeham report, as it has come to be known, made a number of
recommendations for reforming the House of Lords, including the creation of
the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The report also outlined a role
for the House of Lords within British parliamentary governance and discussed
how, as an unelected body, it should relate to the House of Commons.
The Lord Norton of Louth joined the House of Lords in August 1998. He is
an expert on the U.K. Parliament and the author of several books and
articles, including Parliament in British Politics. Lord Norton is
also a professor of government in the school of politics, philosophy and
international studies at the University of Hull and has a Ph.D from the
University of Sheffield.
He currently serves on the House of Lords Constitution Committee and
continues to write publicly about constitutional matters on his personal
website, The Norton View.
Professor Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit, Department of
Political Science, University College London. She appeared before the
Special Senate Committee on Senate Modernization last April when she
discussed the role of cross-benchers in the House of Lords.
Professor Russell is a globally recognized expert on the House of Lords,
upper chambers in bicameral parliaments, and in comparative bicameralism
more generally. She has written extensively on upper chamber design and
reform, including A Stronger Second Chamber? Assessing the Impact of
House of Lords Reform in 1999 and the Lessons for Bicameralism.
We have our three witnesses here by teleconference, and I believe the
sound is working well.
I'm not sure if our witnesses have written presentations. Who would like
to proceed first?
Rt. Hon. the Lord Wakeham DL, House of Lords: Well, shall I start,
if I may?
First of all, we're delighted to come along here and to talk to you and
hope that what we say about the British House of Lords and House of Commons
is of some value to you.
I went into the House of Lords as a life peer just about 25 years ago,
and the day I arrived I was made the leader of the House of Lords which was
then, very substantially, a hereditary body. Since those days things have
changed and we now have roughly about 100 hereditary peers out of a total
house of some 850.
This has made some difference to the way things happen, but I don't think
it has made quite as much difference as a lot of people thought it was going
to make. There is now, for instance, I think, a general agreement that no
government should have a majority in the House of Lords. Every government
we're likely to have, in my view, is going to be in a minority position in
the House of Lords and that, of course, obviously has some constraints on
what it can get through.
My view also is that there is no government that is very likely to give
up what we call the prerogative right, that is, to ask the sovereign to
appoint new peers to the house, but I think there is a possibility now that
they may agree to restrict that right if they can get some clear
understandings that the conventions upon which we operate continue into the
Talking about the House of Lords, both before and now it is still a very
effective revising chamber. It looks at legislation in, I would say, more
detail than the House of Commons does. It studies it very much more
carefully, and in some ways it's more effective than the House of Commons in
looking at the detail. Many amendments are made in bills when they are going
through the House of Lords which are accepted by the government, because the
government has been persuaded that this will be an improvement to the bill.
The amendments that are not agreed in the House of Lords, where the
opponents of the government win, then go back to the Commons to be
considered again, and assuming that the House of Commons passes them again
and they come back to the House of Lords, it is less likely now that the
House of Lords will not accept the view of the House of Commons for a second
It's increasingly likely, I think, in the house, of course, and it's
increasingly the view in the House of Lords, that the greater authority of
the elected house over an appointed house has to be recognized if it's going
to work. The House of Lords used to have members, all or nearly all, who
were retired great leaders of our nation. They were members of the House of
This has dropped off very considerably. In fact, there are now no
ex-prime ministers in the House of Lords. It's the first time in my lifetime
that has been so. The last one was Ms. Thatcher, and all the prime ministers
since then have not gone to the House of Lords, although they could
obviously get there if they wanted to.
I'm not quite sure the reason for it. The reason some people give is that
they don't want to have to declare their earnings, which are pretty
substantial when they are ex-prime ministers. Therefore, they get on with
that rather than appearing in the House of Lords.
That doesn't mean to say that we don't have some problems in the House of
Lords. The House of Lords is thought, I think by all of us, to have gotten
too big. This is probably more of a perception problem than a real one, but
it is a problem. Any ways of reducing it, which we are actually looking at,
at the moment, are going to take some time. I think we might hopefully be
able to achieve something.
Lord Norton of Louth, House of Lords: The point I would make is
that the relationship between the two houses is shaped fundamentally by the
realization that the Commons is superior to the Lords in that it is elected.
The House of Lords is not. Therefore, the Lords seeks to fulfill functions
that will not conflict with the Commons, but rather sees itself as adding
value to the political process by fulfilling functions that are
complementary to the elected house.
We don't seek to conflict with it; neither do we see to duplicate what it
does. The Lords fulfills functions that essentially the Commons may not have
the political will to fulfill, may not have the time, or indeed the
With the functions it does fulfill it's generally regarded as fulfilling
them well. When there's talk in this country about reform of the House of
Lords, it is not focused on functions. It's focused on composition. When
there are attempts to reform the house in terms of composition, it is
premised on the basis that the Lords does a good job, there are appropriate
functions for a second chamber, and that the house should continue to
At the core of those functions, as Lord Wakeham indicated, is legislative
scrutiny. The house will accept basically the ends determined by the House
of Commons, so we would not vote on a government bill normally under second
reading on principle. We focus on the details. It's means that we address,
looking in great depth at each bill that comes before us.
That scrutiny, as Lord Wakeham indicated, is generally regarded as being
thorough, more effective than the Commons in changing the details of bills,
changes that are generally acceptable not just to the house but to
government and therefore to the House of Commons. Each parliamentary
session, anything between a few hundred to sometimes a few thousand
amendments are secured to government bills in the House of Lords.
The reasons why the house is seen as being effective in fulfilling its
functions are to do with composition and procedures. Composition is
important collectively and individually. It is collectively in that, as Lord
Wakeham has indicated, no one party has an absolute majority in the house.
The government, therefore, has to take the house seriously to get its
business. That shapes the relationship between the house and the executive
in a way that's very different from the House of Commons.
The House of Commons, I characterize as determined by the politics of
assertion. The House of Lords is characterized by the politics of
justification. The ministers have to persuade. They have to justify their
measures. They have to engage. They cannot afford to be overly adversarial.
Collective composition is important and so is the individual composition,
the members who are appointed. It's essentially a house of experience and
Members appointed like Lord Wakeham have extensive experience in
government. Others have served in positions in the arts, sciences, in
government itself, cabinet secretaries or chiefs of the defence staff in the
Armed Forces. Others are appointed because they are the experts in their
field. They are highly trained and have reached the top of their profession
in the law, medicine and different fields. Quite a number of members, such
as myself, are professors. That enables the Lords to look at issues in a way
that is different from the House of Commons, a different perspective which
Then apart from composition it's procedures. The Lords has procedures the
Commons does not have. We debate all amendments that are tabled. In the
Commons the chair has to select which amendments will be debated. We debate
them all. We do not have timetable motions as the Commons does, so there
isn't a limit on debate. We will debate amendments for as long as they need
to be debated.
There are a number of other procedural rules as well, which benefit the
house, so we have the means and we have the people who are able to utilize
those means effectively to fulfill those functions which, as I say, are
complementary to the role of the Commons.
The only other point I would make about the detailed scrutiny of
legislation is that it's not just detailed scrutiny of primary legislation,
that is bills brought forward, but it's also delegated legislation. We have
a rather large volume of secondary legislation. The Lords has dedicated
committees for dealing with that and the Commons does not. The Lords'
scrutiny of primary and secondary legislation adds to the value of
Meg Russell, Director, Constitution Unit, Department of Political
Science, University College London, as an individual: It's very nice to
be back with you again for what appears to be my annual visit. Thank you for
inviting me, and I'm delighted to be on such a distinguished panel with two
such senior members of the House of Lords.
Your question was about the relationship between the two chambers. I'm
surprised that Philip Norton hasn't said a bit more about this. I'm sure
he'll get much more into detail on his own with respect to the conventions
that govern the relationship between the two chambers.
Particularly with respect to legislation, there are some very well-known
conventions, the so-called Salisbury- Addison Convention about the House of
Lords not blocking government manifesto policy, but on a more day-to-day
basis, the restraint by the House of Lords on legislation goes much further
than that. As Philip has referred to, it conventionally doesn't block
government bills in their entirety at the second reading or the third
reading. Indeed, it rarely votes on those things at all. It focuses more on
There is also a more contested convention with respect to the ability of
the House of Lords to block, to veto secondary legislation, which it does
occasionally, but this is considered appropriate only in exceptional
circumstances. There has been quite a lot of argument about that in the U.K.
in the last couple of years.
The relationship between the two houses, and the differences between
them, is fundamentally governed by convention on some really big things that
we don't even normally think about, such as the fact that for a long time it
has been considered only appropriate that the prime minister should be drawn
from the House of Commons and that most senior ministers should be drawn
from the House of Commons. All of these are purely matters of convention.
There's a lot of constraint by the House of Lords, and there's a strong
sense that the House of Commons is the senior chamber.
There are some subtleties in that relationship which are worth drawing
out. First, why is this the case? The most obvious answer is that the House
of Commons is elected and the House of Lords is not. If you look back
historically, there are some other important factors to bear in mind.
Historically, as John Wakeham has referred to, the House of Lords was almost
entirely hereditary until 1958. It remained largely hereditary until 1999.
In that respect it clearly had some legitimacy problems, compared to the
House of Commons.
Crucially, it was also dominated by the Conservative Party until a reform
in 1999, which removed the majority of hereditary peers. It presented a
particular threat to governments of the left, Liberal and Labour
governments. The restraint that it exercised throughout the 20th century was
a lot about a Conservative House of Lords, it not being appropriate for it
to meddle in and block legislation from a Liberal or Labour government.
In fact, peers in the House of Lords could in some ways be more active
and be more fierce to a Conservative government because that would be an
internal Conservative Party disagreement, but they needed to show restraint
with respect to governments of the left. Now, of course, as has already been
referred to, the chamber is much more party politically balanced.
With respect to conventions and the importance of them in our system, I
would emphasize that our conventions about the relationship between the two
houses have developed over a very long time. The key rules governing the
relationship between the two houses are not legal rules. They are political
ones. They are political judgments. Understandings about the appropriate
relationship between the two houses become established in people's minds, in
politicians' minds, and in the minds of journalists and academics.
In terms of the sorts of limits of acceptable behaviour by the upper
house, people may not even fully rationalize why they hold these views, but
they become quite fixed and difficult to shift. The changes that happened in
1999 didn't fundamentally change the relationship between the two houses.
Conventions by their nature are fragile. They can move over time. They
can gradually erode, and they do have the potential to completely collapse
in extremis, unlike legal restraints.
I would emphasize that the relationship between the two chambers is
subtle in other ways. It's important not to simplify and see the two
chambers as blocks: House of Commons versus House of Lords, or House of
Lords versus government. They are both complex organizations. They both have
representatives of the same political parties in them. There are connections
between those parties and between the chambers.
As has already been referred to, the culture in the two chambers is
really quite different. Rhetoric in the House of Commons is highly
political; in the House of Lords, much less so. A key aspect of debate in
the House of Lords is the need for ministers to give rational explanations
of why they are doing what they are doing, not just appeal to party
sentiment. In that particularly important is the presence of the many
cross-benchers, the independent peers, who can hold the balance of power in
the House of Lords and listen very carefully to rational arguments.
In terms of the relationship between the two chambers, the thing that is
always most important to ministers is to retain the support of their own
side, particularly their own side in the House of Commons. All the House of
Lords can really do in the end, if it defeats the government on something,
is send a matter back to the House of Commons for reconsideration. It's
essentially asking the House of Commons: "Are you sure you want to do
That question is primarily targeted at government backbenchers in the
Commons who will make the decision. The government will give in to the Lords
when there's discontent on its own back benches. Where it's supported by its
own backbenchers, it will normally stand firm and be able to get its way.
It's not pressure from the Lords in itself which forces government to
change its mind. It's internal party pressure and it's public and media
There are relatively few reversals of policy resulting from visible
resistance by the Lords, but that doesn't mean that the chamber is weak and
not listened to. Ministers actually spend a lot of time thinking in advance
as to how the House of Lords will respond to things. Sometimes, for example
with respect to delegated legislation, orders will be withdrawn before a
vote in order to avoid a defeat, which is quite interesting, because that's
a sign that ministers have to work hard to retain the convention that those
orders are not vetoed by the House of Lords. It's not just for the House of
Lords to police those conventions.
I would emphasize that our conventions have a very long and complex
history. It's important to emphasize that understandings of what's
acceptable political behaviour differ widely and culturally around the world
in different political systems. It's a very general point from comparative
politics that what works in one country cannot necessarily readily be
imported into another. I think this is probably truer of convention than of
any other thing.
Lord Wakeham: I could add one thing to what has been said because
it is quite interesting. The Salisbury Convention, the name we give to the
view that the House of Lords will not vote against the second reading of
bills that have been passed by the Commons, really arose after the war when
there was a very large Conservative majority in the House of Lords. The
leadership of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords realized that
unless they acted with restraint, there would be serious difficulties about
how the House of Lords could continue. Therefore, they brought in this
convention in order to control their own backbenchers. It wasn't the
government doing it. It was the opposition saying, "Look, we have to be
You can see that also in the way the House of Lords has acted over the
years. There has been a sensitivity that because we're not elected,
particularly when it was largely hereditary, we had to exercise proper
restraint. Otherwise, the place was not defensible. Restraint was always
part of the process in the House of Lords.
The Chair: Interesting. Thank you very much. We have quite a
growing list. We will start with our deputy chair.
Senator Joyal: Welcome, and thanks for accepting our invitation.
I will start with Lord Wakeham. When you released your report in 2000 I
had the opportunity to meet you at the Canadian High Commission in London
where you were invited by the commissioner at that time to explain the
impact of the report.
My first question will be for you, but I would like to say to Professor
Norton that we share the pride of both being alumni of University of
Sheffield, from which I graduated almost the same year as you, so it gives
you an idea of my age.
Professor Russell has been a very faithful attendee of the seminar of the
constitutional unit of the University of London. As you said, you are a
regular. I think you could probably be the expert-in-residence for the
Canadian Senate in relation to our modernization study.
My first question is for Lord Wakeham. I would like to quote from chapter
8 of your own report entitled Holding the Government to Account in
which you wrote:
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.
On that basis my first question to you would be: What is the role of the
various political parties represented in the Lords? Specifically, what is
the role of the opposition party, the one party that faces the other party
that might constitute the government majority in the House of Commons? Have
you seen over the years an evolution of the role of the parties in the
My questions could be certainly commented on by any one of you.
Lord Wakeham: It is nice of you to remember my report and remember
our meeting all those years ago. The report was received with great
enthusiasm by everybody, and then they did nothing about it. That's one of
the difficulties with reforming the House of Lords. There's lots of talk
about it, but when it comes down to it, governments are not very keen on
legislating because it's quite often controversial and there are plenty of
other things on their agenda.
Regarding the House of Lords, I thought that its role could be enhanced.
I think it has been enhanced because I think we have now more experts in
there. The revising done in the House of Lords is now at a very high
standard, but it does require a certain amount of constraint.
In other words, there is no point in fighting the battles which have been
fought and won in the House of Commons.
The House of Lords works if you accept that the government of the day has
a majority in the House of Commons. They have been duly elected and are
entitled to get the major parts of their program through. We do our best to
improve what they're doing. That works pretty well but it does require
One has to remember that the present government is in a minority in the
House of Lords, but if there were a change of government and a Labour
government came in, they would be in exactly the same position. At the
moment, in the House of Lords the Labour Party actually decides when they
will have a vote and when they will win. We can't win. If they want to have
a vote, they will defeat us.
They are restrained in their own minds. They don't want to defeat us too
often because that keeps reminding everybody they are unelected. They change
legislation and send it back to the House of Commons on things they feel
really strongly about. Then the House of Commons debates them again, sends
them back to the House of Lords and usually the House of Lords will pass
them the second time through.
It does a good job, but it hasn't changed as much as I wanted it to
change when I brought in my proposal some 20- odd years ago.
Lord Norton: I could add as well our point about holding
government to account also identifies a separate function to that of
legislative scrutiny because it is questioning government about its actions
The Lords has the procedures and membership to do that. There are
opportunities for members through question time, through initiating debates
and through select committees. We use select committees the same as the
Commons, but we don't want to duplicate departmental select committees, so
we have cross-cutting committees covering things like the constitution.
We can question and tease out of government the reasoning behind whatever
it's doing. The mechanisms and procedures facilitate that both in the
chamber and increasingly through committees. The committee reports are
generally seen as quite authoritative, evidence based, and really do shape
debate. It doesn't involve necessarily votes in the chamber. It's rather
informing government. It's informing the wider political opinion of the
As I say, I have seen this informing debate being quite influential
within the house and much wider, including indeed the scrutiny of the
European Union, where the European Union committee is generally regarded as
doing an excellent job in scrutinizing proposals.
Ms. Russell: If I may, I would add just one very tiny amendment to
what Lord Wakeham said about the government having a majority in the House
of Commons and therefore the right to get things through.
I would say, yes, so long as it can retain its majority in the House of
Ms. Russell: An important bit of context is that — and Philip
Norton was the first chronicler of this — government MPs in the House of
Commons have over the decades become partly through better education and the
changing nature of the broader political environment more and more
independent minded and willing to challenge their leaderships.
I would say one of the crucial functions of the opposition in the House
of Lords now, though other people in the House of Lords do it as well
including the independent cross-benchers, is to try to look for divisions in
the government party, the government's weaknesses with its own supporters,
particularly in the Commons. They will look out for those opportunities and
seize them if they can and throw things back to the Commons to see if
government backbenchers really will stand with ministers.
If they won't, that's when things collapse and that's when policy
Lord Norton: The other value we should mention in terms of the
opposition, which is to your question about the role of the opposition, is
that it does provide, as in the Commons, for structured scrutiny. There's
always someone on the opposition's front bench there to put questions and to
ensure that bills are thoroughly scrutinized. They are then complemented by
other parties and by other members in the House, but the opposition is there
to provide structured questioning of government on a consistent basis. That
is a feature of the Commons and indeed a notable distinctive feature of
Senator Joyal: I think many of my colleagues have other questions
to add, and I will defer to them.
If at the end we have another opportunity, Mr. Chair, I will certainly
like to come back.
Senator McCoy: Thank you all for taking this time, and hello again
to Dr. Russell.
I'm quite taken with the concept of the upper chamber being a revising
body. I'm thinking there's more and more of an appetite for that role being
accentuated in Canada.
I have a couple of questions around that, particularly since the last
time I looked at and counted the number of amendments in the House of Lords
was about a year ago. I'm trying to remember. It was something in the
neighbourhood of 857 amendments that had gone through.
In Canada there were 57 or 58 amendments on bills that went through since
1980 or in the last 35 years.
Lord Wakeham: Can I make a comment on that? It may be that some of
our bills aren't drafted as well as they should be in the first place.
The House of Lords is pretty good at finding mistakes, inconsistencies or
things which simply wouldn't work properly. A lot of our amendments are not
political at all. They are in order to make the legislation more effective
than it would be if it wasn't drafted properly. That accounts for a lot of
Also, the House of Lords finds itself in difficulties if it starts to
say, "We don't like this bill at all; we want to oppose it completely.''
They may run into challenges with the House of Commons. What they tend to do
is to say, "This is what the government is doing. It has a majority to do
this, but let's try to see if we can make it better and more effective.''
Lord Norton: It's worth making the point as well that most of the
amendments that are accepted by the house are actually tabled by government.
Their genesis is not within government. It is actually ministers
responding to amendments moved at earlier stages by members; ministers
recognizing the point made and therefore getting parliamentary council to
draft an appropriate amendment to meet the point so when they bring it
forward it's generally acceptable to the house.
Meg Russell's research on certain bills showed that about 55 per cent had
their genesis in earlier stages of the bill sometimes from the Commons.
Ms. Russell: Indeed, and this fits with my previous comment in
terms of the relation between the chambers. Yes, the vast majority of
amendments agreed are government amendments, but generally in response to
points raised by non- government parliamentarians.
Often those discussions begin in the Commons. The amendments are not
passed in the Commons, but once the bill gets to the Lords and if people in
the Lords are making the same kinds of points that were made in the Commons
and the government realizes it's on weak political ground, it will move its
own amendments in response.
The two chambers are much more linked than people often realize.
Senator McCoy: Do you do that on the floor of the House of Lords
or do you do it in committee? What's the mechanism?
Lord Norton: Normally after second reading are the committee and
report stages. Those committee stages are sometimes taken on the floor in
the Committee of the Whole House and increasingly taken in Grand Committee.
Any peer can attend Grand Committee, so in a sense Grand Committee is a form
of parallel chamber.
Committee is where the main work is done, the detailed scrutiny and the
deliberation. You can speak as many times as you wish to an amendment.
Report stage is taken on the floor of the House. That's more formal and
that's where government will tend to bring forward amendments to meet the
We'll typically spend a number of days in committee. We might spend two
days on report. We are unusual in that when it comes third reading in the
Lords where we can take amendments at third reading, that's not possible in
the Commons. The rules are fairly limited as to what you can introduce at
that stage but it does mean there's one final opportunity to resolve
problems that have not been resolved at committee stage.
The bulk of the work, the deliberations, happen at committee stage. We
then have report stage, which is probably where the actual amendments are
accepted, and we still have third reading to resolve a few unresolved
Senator McCoy: I have one final, quick question, if I may, on the
effect of increased scrutiny, the effectiveness of your debate, and then
rising to move amendments to improve legislation.
I'm interested in the duration in the House of Lords of a bill. Maybe you
don't have it at the tip of your fingers either. How long does it usually
take for a bill to go from first reading through to third reading?
Lord Wakeham: Let me try to answer that. There are usually
negotiations to decide. If it's a big and complicated bill there could be as
many as 10 days on committee stage or it might be one day or two days. We
try negotiate that among the parties as to what is reasonable.
There is a second thing too about our process. We have relatively few
votes at committee stage. In my view when I was the leader of the house, I
used to say to my ministers, "You should try to avoid votes at committee
stage.'' What they could say is, "Look, I don't really think I can quite
agree with what you say, but I certainly will think about what you said to
see if can I come up with an answer.'' Then the votes would come at report
stage. Either the government has thought this is reasonable or not.
We try our best not to be too hostile to amendments at committee stage.
We say, "Let's look at it carefully; let's think about it.'' It helps to
create the right sort of atmosphere.
The amount of time we spend is negotiated between the parties.
Ms. Russell: To add to that, I'm sure Lord Wakeham would confirm
this as someone who has spent a long time at the senior levels of
government. That isn't just fobbing off the House. When ministers say
they'll look at it, they'll often give other assurances such as: "I will
meet the member to discuss it. If the member would like to come to see me, I
will write to the member between committee stage and report stage.''
I've documented this. I've just finished a book which will come out this
summer on the legislative process at Westminster. Much of the legislative
process in a sense is not visible from the public record in the chamber.
There are an enormous number. It's probably the same in Canada. It's just a
multitude of private meetings going on between people particularly in the
Lords, between ministers and backbenchers on their own side, between people
in other parties, between civil servants and people in all parties, to get
agreement before the next stage. It's those things on which agreement cannot
be reached where the government has to make some concessions.
Senator Massicotte: Thank you very much for being with us this
afternoon or early evening for you.
Obviously, we both have a starting point. The Westminster system is very
I do note, and maybe it is something for us to learn from you, that while
we act with reservations to countering the political will of a bill or the
political intent of a bill, we don't have consensus among ourselves as to
whether we should use a veto right, whether we should object to the House of
Commons, or whether we should finally bend and accept they have popular
support. Ourselves, like yourselves, are non-elected.
Is that for a danger for us? Your opening statement was saying that you
basically decided to be a revising chamber because that's where you're most
credible, given your expertise. We're not there with that.
In the argument we would make, if you give up the veto right you give up
a significant negotiating power to get your way, although we don't use it
Is there something we should learn from your history in that we're making
a major mistake in not limiting our powers somewhat or limiting the time
frame for us to review bills?
Lord Wakeham: I think it's very hard for us to be able to advise
you as to what you should do. I can tell you why we do what we do as best I
understand it, and that is this: We accept that the House of Commons is the
dominant house with the real power. The House of Lords is there to advise
and to help. In very rare occasions will we clash head on with the House of
I've been around both houses now for the best part of 50 years, about 46
years or something, and I think it has happened once or twice in the whole
of the time that I've been at either house. Our system would not work if one
house was in conflict with the other over anything that was too major.
Our task in the House of Lords is to try and improve what the government
is doing. Of course we have our political differences, but our system is set
up to try and encourage the government of the day to get their bills in
better shape than they have them in already.
Lord Norton: I think it's important to stress across here that the
Lords is limited by statute, particularly the Parliament Act; as Meg has
explained, by convention; and indeed by practice. We work within that, but
even within that we exercise some degree of constraint.
Even under the Parliament Act we could delay a bill for a session and the
Commons could then insist through the use of the Parliament Act. Since the
Parliament Act 1949 only four bills have been passed under the provisions of
the Parliament Act.
We don't seek conflict with the Commons. We use what powers or what
resources we have essentially as persuasive tools rather than as coercive
tools. Hence, as I stress, the politics of justification: getting the
government to justify, to listen and to work with the house rather than to
say there's a form of a conflict.
Ms. Russell: You should never underestimate the power of simply
exposing government arguments to scrutiny on the public record. Pressure
groups are watching. The media are watching. Government backbenchers are
paying attention to what those groups are saying. Having looked around the
world, I would be nervous of reducing the powers of a second chamber too
much. There are some second chambers that have a delay power of only a few
weeks. I think that does present problems for them.
As Philip Norton has said, we have a delay power of a year and we don't
need to use it. A lot of the time it's the power of argument and the power
of exposure of the weakness of government's arguments that result in change.
It's not the application of the formal powers.
Senator Massicotte: My understanding of the reputation of the
House of Lords is that you've gained credibility and support by the
population in the last couple of years, possibly because of your good work
and possibly because of your change in membership. In our own case we're not
elected and some people question our legitimacy given that we are not
elected. Also there's a trend worldwide to be anti-elite somewhat and we're
seeing this political movement.
What's your recipe for making sure we remain credible to ensure that our
communications and our positions are taken seriously?
Lord Wakeham: There are people who use similar arguments in the
United Kingdom, who say unless we were elected we would not be legitimate.
The fact of the matter is that if we were elected we would be less
valuable in the constitution. There would be clashes between the two houses.
Governments would not be able to govern properly. They wouldn't be able to
get their legislation.
A government with a majority in the House of Commons ought to be able to
get its legislation, but my goodness it has to listen to the House of Lords.
Otherwise it will get into difficulties.
We make amendments not to destroy what they're trying to do but to try
and help them. Most of the time that's what happens on both sides of the
Ms. Russell: There is absolutely no denying that the House of
Lords is a controversial institution. It is subject to constant attack and
criticism. But I've conducted surveys of the public on views of the House of
Lords, and there is a kind of grudging respect at the same time for the
You talked about the anti-elite sentiment, which is absolutely true, but
there's also anti-political party sentiment. One of the things people like
about the House of Lords is that it's less partisan and includes a lot of
members who don't have a party affiliation at all.
I would say the British public's attitude to the House of Lords is quite
conflicted. It's very complicated. It's respected in many ways, but there's
always a threat of reform or a threat of loss of legitimacy hanging over it,
which leads to the restraint it exercises.
Lord Norton: I think it is important to stress that the House of
Commons can take its legitimacy for granted because it's elected. We have to
earn our legitimacy because we're not.
We are sensitive to our environment and this research that Meg has
undertaken to understand what it is that enables our strengths in fulfilling
our functions and the public recognizing what we do.
It really is the detailed scrutiny that is respected, and that it is
being undertaken by people who actually understand the subject and not by
Senator Eggleton: I'd like to ask you about the application of two
practices in the Lords. One is the Salisbury Convention and the other is
You're saying in the Salisbury Convention, as I understand it, that if
the government has a mandate from the people it should be respected in the
House of Lords.
The difficulty is that, first, some of the promises made in election
campaigns can be quite vague; second, the government may decide to vary the
position or the approach they take when they come into office as opposed to
what they actually had in their election literature; or third, they might
decide to throw a lot of other things in and create an omnibus bill that
covers a number of things in addition to their promise.
How do you determine what you should respect as an election promise in
terms of dealing with legislation?
On the suspensive veto, when do you apply the veto and for how long is
the debate allowed to continue after you've applied it? Do you not think
that greatly reduces your power to influence because all the government
needs to do is run up the clock until that period is over?
Lord Wakeham: Let me answer that from a practical point of view,
having been both a leader of the House of Commons and a leader of the House
of Lords in my time.
The view that I took was that if the government could get a majority for
its bill in the House of Commons, I would be extremely surprised if the
House of Lords would not give it a second reading. It is inevitable they
would respect the elected house's decision to pass it.
We could go backward and forward between the two houses with a dispute.
In my day, when I was in government some years ago, we used to hope that the
House of Lords had passed some amendments that we could concede because then
we knew we could get them to back off on the ones that we couldn't concede.
If they passed four amendments and one was sensible, that was all right.
There was no difficulty about it. If one was what we desperately wanted, and
if we could concede on a couple of minor ones, the view was that we could
get our business through.
Actually it could go backward and forward. There was no time limit. It
could go on, but the House of Lords wouldn't do that. The House of Lords
would in the end accept, in my view, the will of the House of Commons.
I can think of only two occasions in my time. One of them in particular
was when we had a bill on war crimes. The fact of the matter is the House of
Lords felt very strongly that it was a time to forgive and forget and not
have another bill about war crimes because many members of the House of
Lords had fought in the war. They realized that a lot of horrible things had
gone on in the world and that it was time to put a stop to it. The House of
Commons was desperately keen to get this bill through. There was a lot of
pressure to get it through and, in the end, they used the Parliament Act.
Lord Norton: But on free vote.
Lord Wakeham: Yes, it wasn't a party vote at all. It was just a
Lord Norton: On the Salisbury Convention you are quite right that
it formally applies to manifesto commitments. Manifestos can be very vague.
That's the sort of thing the opposition would tend to exploit but not
necessarily oppose a bill.
In practice, the Lords will not normally vote on second reading of a
government bill that is its program for the session. If you like, it goes
beyond the Salisbury Convention, largely for the reason that Lord Wakeham
If the Commons is agreed on the ends, we focus on the means. We think
that's what's legitimate and what we can do effectively to complement the
work of the Commons, which is under increasing pressure in terms of time and
demands. It doesn't have the time to engage in detailed scrutiny. Quite
often, there isn't the political will either. Whereas, in the Lords we have
the time. We have members who understand the subject and debate to it. It's
not so much a conflict between the two chambers. We're actually fulfilling
On your second question, it really depends at what point the conflict
took place. If the Lords, as on the war crimes bill, vote it down on second
reading, then that's the end of it until the following session. It could be
the bill has gone through but the Lords has made amendments which were
unacceptable to the Commons. They sent them back. If we have continuous ping
pong and it's not resolved, the bill falls at that stage and then the bill
is reintroduced in the following session.
It depends at what point the bill failed.
Ms. Russell: I would simply emphasize that both of these things
are very rare, and neither of these things should be taken too literally.
The House of Lords gets into very few detailed debates about whether
something can be defined as being in the government's manifesto because it's
generally a respect for the elected house and the convention of not voting
against any bill.
Whether it's in the manifesto is mostly immaterial. On the application of
the veto, it very rarely comes to that point. Most disputes are resolved
through negotiation before it gets anywhere near that.
Lord Wakeham: I spent many years of my life doing the negotiations
when I was leader of the Commons and leader of the Lords, going backward and
forward to find something acceptable to all sides.
Senator Dean: Thank you for all your helpful comments. As a
relatively new senator, the ability to be involved in rich debates and
discussions like this one is just a joy and privilege.
I'm a graduate of the University of Hull just down the road from my
friend at Sheffield.
This question is a shift of zones. I'd like to talk a bit about the
quality and effectiveness of debates in upper chambers. Your points about
upper chambers benefiting from and varying on the basis of having different
biographies and operating in different contexts are well taken.
A current issue that is a matter of some debate before us in the Senate
right now is the way that we organize debates and the way that debates have
I characterize it this way: There are some of us who see the debate
system on government bills, in particular in the Senate, as often truncated
and extended out of over quite long periods, usually benefiting from a rule
and/or a convention on the ability to adjourn debate fairly consistently.
Some would argue that relates to some partisan aspects of our chamber that
replicate some of those aspects in the House of Commons.
Could you tell us a bit about the way that debates are organized in the
Lords, in particular whether and how debates are organized in clusters so
that they are concentrated over a number of days and that you as members
benefit from a consistent thread and a consistent discourse?
I say that recognizing that there will be cases where it's important and
understandable that something is in the chamber and in the Senate for a long
period of time. It doesn't always have to be like that.
I would also ask Ms. Russell to bring forward the best practices of other
chambers around things that she has seen work well in producing both high
quality and highly effective debates.
Lord Norton: The basic point to make is that the House of Lords is
a self-regulating chamber. We're in charge, and we have to behave in order
to make the system work.
The parties generally accept the rules that apply. It's not like playing
games in seeking adjournment. It's really addressing amendments that are put
There are certain rules of debate. There are certain rules for when we
are considering legislation. On general non- legislative debates you have
people speaking who are usually very knowledgeable and maybe experts in the
area. We also tend to time-limit contributions, certainly the time limit for
debate. You have a series of fairly short speeches by leading figures in the
field. It works extraordinarily well. You learn a lot from those who really
understand the subject.
On legislation, there will be agreement between the usual channels as to
the number of days that are normally allocated to committee stage. If they
miscalculate, extra time may have to be found or we will sit later in the
evening to get through.
Basically, members put down amendments. There's no selection of
amendments. All amendments that are tabled are considered. They may be
grouped by agreement. If there are several on the same point, they will all
be discussed at the same time. Even then, the mover of the amendment can
insist they be debated separately.
There is a master list produced in relation to each clause. Every
amendment is considered and we debate them for as long as there are
amendments to be debated.
There are not usually attempts to use procedure to delay or subvert
discussion. We focus on the merits of the amendments being put forward.
There doesn't seem to be any problem, because each member is free to put
down an amendment to make sure that what they want to be considered is
considered. They get a response from the minister. It's then up to the
member whether they wish to pursue it at a later stage. As Meg mentioned,
there's a lot of informal discussion between the stages to reach agreement.
The rules of the game are accepted and members on the whole work within
Ms. Russell: I think it is fair to say — and, Lord Norton, you're
a comparativist as well — that this is a very unusual system in the House of
Lords. It comes back to the point about convention versus kind of legal
rules or frameworks. It's very unusual that the House of Lords manages to
maintain this kind of largely consensual way of running its business with
people respecting each other's rights to time and so on. It's the kind of
convention that has developed and would be very hard to create.
In the House of Lords, there's no concept, for example, of a guillotine
motion. It's completely unheard of, which is different from the House of
Commons, although those kinds of things apply less in the House of Commons
these days as well.
The British Parliament is very unusual, in general, in not actually
privileging political parties very much. The emphasis within the standing
orders in both chambers is very much on the individual member. Parties don't
carve up time so much as you see in many other more modern parliaments. Our
Parliament predates our party system and has developed gradually, whereas in
many more modern parliaments the standing orders were organized around the
existence of political parties.
One thing to say about the effectiveness of debates is that it's about
the members as well. The House of Lords compared to the House of Commons is
a very tough environment for ministers because of the nature of the people
who are there and might ask you questions. It's a very tough environment in
which to answer parliamentary questions.
Lord Wakeham: That is an important part of it. You have to
remember that members of the House of Lords, particularly Independents, are
often earning their living somewhere else. They don't get paid.
Therefore, a considerable amount of trouble is taken to try to fix the
timetable so that the debates take place with plenty of notice and the
experts can hopefully get there. You have a high level of debate because
you're going to have a debate on defence and all the ex-generals and people
are there because they have been told a long time in advance that's when the
debate is going to be.
The management of the place has to recognize that if we're to get people
with great knowledge to come and talk about a particular important subject
which is down for debate the ones who really know about it are there. In a
way even at question time people will jump up and the house will shout the
name of a distinguished somebody or other that they think has something to
contribute, and the house will accept that they should have the priority to
ask the next question, whatever it is.
There is a considerable amount of cooperation in getting the best debates
going and the ways worked out.
Ms. Russell: It is an intimidating environment for ministers, and
consequently ministers don't mess up very often. It's like what I said about
the legislative process. All of the work is the preparation work for
ministers to be ready to answer any question.
I don't know whether Lord Wakeham has had experience with this, but I
interviewed somebody who had been at the dispatch box answering questions
for the government. He recalled an occasion when in preparation for
questions he recognized that there was a weakness in the government's
policy. The policy was changed before the question had even been asked
because he knew he would not be able to defend the policy as it was. A lot
of the power of the Lords is very subtle and invisible.
Lord Wakeham: Yes, that is absolutely right. I would also add that
when I was leader of the house I used to say to my junior ministers: "I can
give you half a dozen answers you can give to questions when you haven't a
clue what the right thing to say is, like 'I'll speak to my boss when I get
back to the office,' and you'll get away with murder.'' It doesn't always
work quite as smoothly as people make out.
Senator Dean: Thank you.
Senator Forest: Mr. Chair, the previous speaker asked the same
question that I wanted to ask. I'll give up my turn.
Senator Bellemare: Thank you, Mr. Chair. My question was also
related to the question asked by Senator Dean.
I think my question is in line with some work that Professor Russell did
in 2006 entitled: Managing Parliament better? A Business Committee for
the House of Commons.
What I understood from the answers you gave to Senator Dean's question is
that the legislative process in the House of Lords is organized by itself.
You are all non-partisan adults and you organize the workload.
I was wondering about the business committee that Professor Russell
proposed 10 years ago or so. Was it implemented in the house? Is it
inspiring for the work of the House of Lords, or you don't use this process?
Ms. Russell: Should I answer on the proposal?
Lord Wakeham: Yes.
Ms. Russell: The business committee discussion was one primarily
about the House of Commons, not the House of Lords. I'm very impressed;
you've really been doing some extensive reading. The paper you referred to
explore the way that business committees operate in other parliaments around
the world. I visited New Zealand, Germany and Scotland, where they have
formal business committees to organize the timetable for the house rather
than doing what we do. I'm afraid I'm not sure what you do in Canada. Philip
Norton referred to the so-called usual channels. It's all done by
negotiation between the whips, informally and off the record.
I came away rather skeptical, actually, about what I found in these other
countries regarding the benefits that a business committee would bring. It's
not that it's a bad thing to have a transparent, clear committee responsible
for setting the agenda, but what I found when I went on visits to those
other countries was that despite the existence of such a committee the real
deals were still done between whips outside of formal meetings.
I attended the business committee in New Zealand, and the discussion of
the business for the week ahead lasted about two minutes. Clearly it had all
been discussed in advance of the meeting. I'm not sure that the places that
have business committees really politically operate very differently to
those that don't. I'll leave the House of Lords to Lord Wakeham and Lord
Norton this time.
Lord Wakeham: I suspect there is nobody in the United Kingdom who
has done more deals between parliamentary people without any business
committee. I would be horrified if I had a business committee interfering
with the deals I did because I've got to make everybody happy. I don't do it
now; I'm retired from it all. We negotiated everything and we negotiated in
such a way that people felt the deal was fair.
The fact of the matter is that if somebody is really unhappy with the way
we're running our affairs, both in the House of Commons and the House of
Lords, they could make such a fuss that they could stop the whole business
in 10 minutes. It has to be done by agreement.
I was the government chief whip for many years. Half my time was spent
negotiating with the opposition parties as to what the business would be.
Then I went to cabinet and told the government cabinet what the business was
going to be, but I dealt with it with the opposition before I'd ever spoken
to the cabinet about it because that's the only way to get it through.
Senator Bellemare: I understand in the House of Lords that the
business organization is done very easily. Is it easy to do the organization
of discussions in committees?
Lord Wakeham: At the end when the result is through it looks easy.
It's not always that easy to get there. You have to understand what the
other person wants. You get what you want because you give him something
that he wants. You negotiate it and that's what happens.
Lord Norton: The negotiation can be very flexible while the bill
is going through. The whips may get together toward the end of the day to
discuss at what point they should finish the discussion, depending on the
progress that has been made. It is that flexibility that adapts to how the
house is proceeding, whether it's moving quickly, and so on.
Ms. Russell: In the end, it operates a great deal on mutual
Lord Norton: Absolutely, yes.
Ms. Russell: It's very, very civilized. One of the reasons for
that, underlying it, is what John Wakeham just said. Actually the government
actually has no means of forcing business on the House of Lords.
If it didn't approach people with charm and respect, those people could
make it very, very difficult for the government. That sort of holds things
in tension. It encourages this atmosphere where people do a great deal by
negotiation in a sort of very civilized manner.
Senator Bellemare: If I understand you well, you negotiate and you
come to a mutually advantageous agreement, but those mutually advantageous
agreements are in the lenses of the individual Lords and their own
interests, and they are not done through the lenses of partisan political
Lord Norton: The usual channels are the whips. They do it on
behalf of the whole house. We normally accept that the business they are
organizing is to the benefit of the whole house and we normally go along
Ms. Russell: Of course, important within the Canadian context,
there has to be some consideration of the likely response of the independent
members who don't have a whip. They do have a convenor of their group who is
party to some of these discussions, but there it really is at the level of
the individual because they don't operate as a bloc.
Senator Bellemare: Thank you.
Senator Dupuis: Thank you. My question has already been answered,
The Chair: Thank you very much. We're moving along. We're going to
have lunch today, I think.
Senator Tardif: Thank you, chair. I wanted to address a few
procedural matters pertaining to the relationship between the two houses.
To what extent is pre-study used by the House of Lords in dealing with
legislation that emanates from the House of Commons, and to what extent are
joint committees established to address complex legislation?
Lord Norton: We don't use joint committees to deal with
legislation other than at the pre-legislative stage. Increasingly in the
past few years the government has issued a number of bills in draft and sent
them to Parliament for pre-legislative scrutiny.
Normally it would be undertaken by one of the departmental select
committees of the Commons, but because of their constitutional significance
or complexity of certain bills where it would be useful to have members of
the House of Lords involved, joint committees are established to undertake
that pre-legislative scrutiny and to report on the draft bill.
We don't have joint committees once a bill is introduced. It has to go
through each house. It normally goes through the Commons first, and then it
comes to the Lords. There's actually no joint working at all. The
communication is when the bill goes back. If we send it back with
amendments, they consider the amendments and they send them back. There's no
coming together at any point doing the actual formal legislative process.
Lord Wakeham: I wouldn't add anything to that.
Ms. Russell: It was a very complete answer.
Lord Wakeham: It was a very good answer.
Senator Tardif: Great.
Lord Wakeham: We do have joint committees sometimes, but they are
usually not about legislation. They are about wider questions, say human
rights or something of that sort. There are sometimes joint committees but
they are not to settle legislation.
Senator Tardif: I know in Canada a joint committee was established
to look at a bill coming forward on medically assisted aid to dying. A joint
committee was set up and then legislation followed.
Ms. Russell: We occasionally do things like that, don't we? As we
said, on draft bills. For example, the last bill to reform the House of
Lords went to a very large joint committee.
Lord Norton: Yes.
Ms. Russell: It didn't get much further.
Senator Greene: I have certainly learned a lot from this wonderful
conversation we're having. One of the conclusions I have drawn is that a
chief difference between our system in the Senate and yours in the House of
Lords is that our houses of commons acts differently.
You have described your house where during second reading of a bill you
can have large numbers of the government caucus not supporting the cabinet
or the government, with the result that there was a lot of toing and froing
with members visiting people in the House of Lords and people of opposite
parties beginning to get together to advise on a bill or to change a bill.
Such a thing in Canada would never ever happen because the discipline at
third reading is so powerful that it's just not tolerated, with the result
that we don't have the back and forth between the Senate and the House of
Commons in Canada. We are on two parallel rails, and never the twain shall
Lord Wakeham: Yes.
Senator Greene: It seems that your system is more similar to the
American system with the House of Representatives and the Senate where you
have members of the House of Representatives and members of the Senate maybe
on opposite parties, Republican and Democrat, getting together on
legislation and policy positions.
I wonder if you could comment on that.
Lord Norton: I certainly can. I gave evidence to a House of
Commons McGrath committee in 1984 and drew attention to the difference
between the two chambers, your House of Commons and our House of Commons. In
our House of Commons members were starting to operate somewhat independently
of the whips at times, not to undermine completely party cohesion, so
nowhere near the American experience.
Since the 1970s, MPs across here have been more willing to vote against
their own party more often on more occasions and with greater effect than
before. Part of the reason for that and the difference with Canada is that
across here most votes are not treated as votes of confidence.
You can vote against your own side. It may result on very rare occasions
on the government being defeated in the House of Commons. That started in
the early 1970s. Members realized we'd defeated our own side but it has had
no wider constitutional consequences, no confidence attached to it. All we
have done is forced the government to change policy. Members mostly are
voting loyally to their own side but on occasion, if they disagree with it,
they are willing to vote against.
As I explained to the McGrath committee at the time across here there
were gradations of votes. Some were explicit votes of confidence. Some were
so important that they were votes of confidence, but the rest, which is the
vast majority of matters on which votes took place, entailed no confidence
at all. The government could lose, but there were no questions about its
status or its continuance in office.
Members started to have an impact on policy by actually voting against
their own side or the threat of voting against your own side, because as a
result of that change in behaviour government took the threat more seriously
Backbenchers could influence their own side, so ministers had to have
regard to those who sat behind them and not simply those who sat in front of
them. That is the fundamental difference. I don't think Canada has quite got
through the barrier of recognizing that most votes don't entail confidence
in the government at all.
Lord Wakeham: I can say I was chief whip for Ms. Thatcher and the
idea that many of our backbenchers would vote against her legislation in the
House of Commons when I was in charge of getting it through was pretty rare.
It wasn't a very good move for the person who voted against us.
However, part of that process was a great deal of discussion behind the
scenes with our backbenchers. I was very keen to make sure the ministers
talked to our backbenchers and tried to persuade them of the merits of the
legislation or what sort of concession would they like, which the government
then brought in, in order to get them to vote consistently for the bill.
We all had one or two people who didn't vote with us, but not very many
of them certainly in my day when I used to be in charge of the voting in the
House of Commons.
Ms. Russell: Going back to what I said before, this is a very
important part of our system, understanding the Commons as well as
understanding the bicameral relationship. There are a whole range of reasons
as to why MPs behave more independently than they used to do.
You have the establishment of a set of specialist committees in the House
of Commons back in the 1970s. You have the fact that members are better
educated, that the public expects more of them and perhaps values
independence among members. I hope this doesn't upset John Wakeham, but the
whips have got significantly weaker over the years. They have lost a lot of
Lord Wakeham: That's true.
Ms. Russell: They have never been in control of finances for
members, as they are in some parliaments. They used to control the
allocation of rooms but rooms are much more available now. They don't
control speaking time as they do in some parliaments. The Speaker in the
House of Commons is very independent. The parties have very little control
at all over who gets called to speak. They increasingly don't control
They don't have much of a way of actually imposing discipline on their
members, which means that they actually have to listen to their members, and
their members are prepared to take a stand against them.
The bicameral relationship comes into this. I always remember a comment
by a lovely man I used to work for, sadly now deceased, a former leader of
the House of Commons, Robin Cook. I remember there was a very big
controversy after he'd left the government and was on the back benches over
anti-terrorist legislation. There was a rebellion in the House of Commons
before the bill went to the House of Lords. He was interviewed on the
television and the words that he used were: "The House of Commons has sent
the House of Lords a message.'' What he meant by that was that the House of
Lords is going to dare to push the government further and the government
will not dare to try to put this to the House of Commons again. It's in
those circumstances that the Lords' power is at its greatest.
Lord Norton: I don't want to shock John Wakeham as the former
chief whip but, as he says, the whips were very good at telling members: "If
you vote against, it affects your career opportunities.'' All I would point
out is that the empirical evidence doesn't necessarily support that.
Lord Wakeham: I don't think I ever had to use such crude terms in
my day. What I think I did have was a better intelligence and a better
degree of consultation with my backbenchers to persuade them that they were
part of a team. It wasn't their job to protest and vote against the
government. Their job was to influence the government behind the scenes to
get legislation through. Of course I didn't get everybody, but I got a great
deal more. The patronage of the whips has certainly gone down. I think that
For the five years I was chief whip in the Commons I don't think there
was one single minister appointed outside of cabinet which wasn't on my
recommendation. Those were the whips, every single one.
Lord Norton: Things have changed.
Senator McIntyre: My question is one of clarification. I
understand from your presentation that the Salisbury Convention or doctrine
governs the legislative relationship between the House of Commons and the
House of Lords. In other words, it applies to bills passed by the House of
Commons which the party forming the government has foreshadowed in its
general election manifesto.
Looking at the power of the House of Lords to amend or defeat house
legislation, how does the House of Lords determine whether a piece of
legislation was foreshadowed in the government's election manifesto?
Lord Wakeham: That used to be the doctrine but I'm not quite so
sure it's as limited as that now. The view I take, and I think most people
do, is that if the House of Commons gets a majority for the bill, even if it
wasn't in its manifesto, it is not the job of the House of Lords to vote it
down. Its job is to properly consider it, which means give it second reading
and discuss it.
We accept that the House of Commons is the superior chamber. They are the
democratically elected chamber. If they can get a majority for their bill,
it's our responsibility then to consider it and to decide what to do: maybe
amend it if we want to and send it back in that case, but not to refuse to
Ms. Russell: There's a distinction to be drawn, isn't there, which
has come up several times between the principle of the bill and the detail
of the implementation? If the House of Commons has passed a bill with a
comfortable majority, the House of Lords will accept that the bill should
have a second reading.
It will then consider itself completely entitled to scrutinize the
details and suggest changes to the details to make the bill work better
within the broader principles which have been set.
Lord Norton: Yes.
Lord Wakeham: There is one way where it could be tricky. The
government is entitled to, and does, bring in bills starting in the House of
Lords that have never been to the Commons. It's therefore very difficult for
the government to argue that this bill has been passed by the House of
Commons if it started in the House of Lords.
All I can say about that is we have never really tested that seriously
because any government intelligent enough would make sure they would not
bring a bill into the House of Lords to start with if they thought they were
going to run into difficulties.
Ms. Russell: There is one example. Tony Blair's Mode of Trial Bill
that was seeking to limit access to jury trial was introduced very stupidly
in the House of Lords and actually withdrawn. They introduced a Mode of
Trial (No. 2) Bill in the House of Commons because they saw it was doomed.
Lord Wakeham: That establishes my point.
Ms. Russell: It's very rare.
Lord Norton: No sensible government would introduce a
controversial bill in the House of Lords because the Parliament Act doesn't
apply to bills that start life in the Lords. It applies to bills that start
life in the Commons. Any controversial bill is started in the Commons to
ensure that ultimately they could get their way if necessary.
Senator Joyal: I would like to come back to the role of the
political parties in the Lords. What is their specific responsibility in
relation to organizing the study and debate of legislation on a day-to-day
As you have mentioned, cross-benchers are not there all the time to
provide input. As someone would know, when the house opens the work has to
go on. What are the specific roles of the political parties in the
day-to-day managing of the study and debate of legislation?
Lord Wakeham: The government is in charge of the legislative
program for most of the time. There are certain days allocated to the
opposition or other parties when they can choose what they want to debate,
but the legislation is in the hands of the government and the government can
put it down.
They would be very foolish if they did not negotiate with the other
parties and with the cross-benchers as to whether this was sensible and
agreeable to do so.
The government has the resources and the staff to do it. They are in
charge of the process, but they do consult all the time.
Lord Norton: When a bill is being considered there are always
members of the opposition front benches. Both the opposition and the Liberal
Democrats would have members of their front bench present to comment on each
amendment before the minister responds. There is consistent scrutiny from
the other parties.
Ms. Russell: I would say in some respects the role of the
opposition in the House of Lords is less important than in the House of
Commons. The House of Lords is a more plural place. You have the presence of
the independent members. You have lots of different voices. The bishops
haven't been mentioned here, but there are various voices. The third party
is much stronger in the Lords than it is in the Commons, at least at the
There are differences in the rules. For example, in the House of Commons
the Speaker has a much more powerful role than in the House of Lords.
Another way the debate is limited at report stage is that the Speaker has
some control over which amendments will get debated. The Speaker will pick
what are considered to be the most important amendments and those will get
time, and other amendments will not be debated. The ones that get picked as
the most important ones are often the ones coming from the opposition front
That rule simply doesn't apply in the House of Lords. As Philip Norton
has already said, effectively all amendments are treated equally. Indeed the
amendments which often garner the most support and cause the greatest worry
to the government are those led by experts who might be nonpartisan peers,
or they might be backbenchers on one side or the other, like Lord Norton
himself at times as a former Chair of the Constitution Committee.
The amendments from chairs of important committees and accepted experts
from outside, are listened to very seriously, whereas in the House of
Commons the agenda is much more set by the opposition.
Senator Joyal: What is the role of the respective party caucuses
in relation to the work?
Lord Wakeham: We laugh because normally speaking the private
discussions are with the people most concerned about a bill, but the idea
that the program comes before the party caucus for debate and discussion as
a general rule is very rare. That doesn't normally happen.
Ms. Russell: We've spoken a lot about the independence of mind of
backbenchers in the Commons, but the independence of mind in the Lords on
all sides is far greater, because on the party benchers as well as the
independent benchers you have very senior figures, established experts and
so on. The whips simply do not control their parties in the way that applies
in many parliaments around the world.
Lord Norton: The party members tend to vote on party lines, but in
terms of debate, members will speak as they think appropriate regardless of
Ms. Russell: I spoke about the weakness of the whips in the House
of Commons, but in the House of Lords the whips have virtually no power at
all. It's all persuasion and internal discussion.
Lord Wakeham: They have no power but they have a lot of
persuasion. They are still quite effective.
Ms. Russell: Party loyalty matters. Members respect their parties.
They don't want to embarrass their parties, but the whips can't make them do
anything at the end of the day that they don't want to do.
Senator Joyal: I understand that your operation is structured on
the basis of a government party and an opposition party.
Lord Wakeham: We have more than one opposition party. We have two
opposition parties. We have the cross- benchers that are a pretty large
number, the Liberals and the Labour Party. There's quite a number of people
who have to be talked to about any legislation, but it's all done through
the leadership, really.
The Chair: This has been an extremely interesting and very helpful
discussion this morning. Lord Wakeham, Lord Norton and Professor Russell, we
are most appreciative of your taking the time.
There's an unwritten rule, Professor Russell, that if you appear three
times the third time you must be here in person.
Ms. Russell: I would be delighted.
The Chair: Thank you very much. It has been most helpful.
Committee members, we will not have a meeting next week. We have a very
special guest coming to the Commons.
Can we have a motion to go in camera?
Senator McIntyre: So moved.
(The committee continued in camera.)