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5 July 1999

Lord Wakeham meets the rabble

Richard Askwith counts petals on the ceiling as the people have their say on Lords reform

By Richard Askwith

In a high, panelled, municipal room, inlaid with the names of past lord mayors of Birmingham, several dozen people are watching a clock inch towards 2.30pm. Some exchange whispered small talk; many sip coffee in silence; all seem pointedly well behaved, like visitors to a National Trust property. All but three of the men wear ties.

It’s a Thursday afternoon, and the people of the Midlands are waiting for their turn at the latest public hearing of the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords. Some of the people, anyway. Most will have missed the modest advertisement in the local press and the single placard in Victoria Square; and many who didn’t will have more pressing commitments, such as jobs. At least half of those present appear to be retired; and, as one of them mutters, “Some of this lot look like they’ve been dropped here to be looked after for the afternoon.”

Many are busying themselves with paperwork: answering questionnaires or filling in forms requesting permission to make “points from the floor”.

“How can you say what you want to ask about if you haven’t heard the speakers?” grumbles a retired schoolteacher from Bromsgrove, jabbing at a section headed: “The topic I would like to speak on is . . .”.

Murmurs float above the clinking cups: “I just wanted to have a look”; “Do you know how much they get? Forty-eight quid a day”; “I thought I might see some unhappy-looking earls”; “I saw the notice and I was curious”. Then, summoned, we file obediently into the chamber.

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If the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it, something similar could be said of the reforming process. Of course, we are privileged to be allowed even walk-on parts in the re-creation of our constitution, but the hearings have been going on for six weeks now (one each in London, Exeter, Peterborough, Belfast, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh, with Cardiff and a second London hearing still to come), and the response has ranged from the lukewarm to the cool.

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Birmingham’s was livelier and better attended than most, its main hearing attracting, by my count, 70 visitors in all. But when I tell you that only 13 of those 70 were women, only ten were from ethnic minorities, perhaps nine or ten looked under 50 and only three could have been under 30 – and that the dazzlingly gilded half-daisy pattern on the chamber’s ceiling included eight little wheaty motifs, surrounded by 14 inner “petals”, 12 outer “petals” and 64 little starry things – you’ll gather that the proceedings weren’t uniformly riveting. When I add that the first walk-out took place after 27 minutes and the first falling-asleep after 65 – and that the evening session, which was separated from the first session by a short tea-break, managed an audience of just 27 – you’ll wonder if anything worthwhile took place there at all.

I think it did, but it was hard to tell what. The commission was pursuing its own agenda, questioning invited witnesses on written submissions that we had not seen. Most of the witnesses were either representatives of special interest groups (for example, the Country Landowners’ Association or the British Psychological Society) arguing that the House should be reformed in such a way as to maximise their influence; or else political scientists haggling over minutiae of regional weightings and top-ups from lists. (“Bloody academics,” said a man in the Gents during the tea-break.) Witnesses were asked to summarise their proposals for our benefit, but few showed much aptitude for doing so in the two minutes allowed. We thus remained ignorant eavesdroppers.

It was instructive to see how the various commissioners approached the proceedings: Lord Wakeham, the chairman, archly ironic (“You certainly have put a lot of work into what is a pretty comprehensive document”); Gerald Kaufman, mischievous and flirtatious (“You have a very attractive way of putting things”); Baroness Dean, warm and Mo-Mowlam-ish; Ann Beynon severe; the Rt Rev Richard Harries polite; and Kenneth Munro and Professor Dawn Oliver scalpel-sharp. But there’s a limit to the stimulation to be gained from even the most zealous cross-examination if you’re not in possession of the facts, and most of us were soon fidgeting like double-maths victims.

By 4pm we were desperate. Two of the three under-30s had walked out; the third was slumped so low in her seat that I thought she’d gone too. An elderly, florid man was (to the annoyance of his wife) rocking miserably from side to side like a disturbed zoo animal. The grey-anoraked man on my right, having spent much of the afternoon immersed in Dod’s Parliamentary Companion 1992, seemed to be asleep. But he – and the proceedings – stirred back to life when the time finally came for points from the floor. Rifat Mushtaq, a local lawyer, asked why Birmingham’s 150,000 Muslim women had no representative in parliament. “Away with patronage and privilege!” roared the Dod’s enthusiast. “One person, one vote.”

“Everybody who has the ability should have the opportunity of serving,” insisted Marcus Garvey, a retired tax inspector, black and disabled, arguing against quotas for minorities. “I do not believe that anybody has the right to be selected without that ability.”

Never mind that there was no reaction from the commission to any of these “questions”. We were having our moment.

A hunched lady who obviously found it a severe physical struggle to speak at all initially drew sympathetic glances. Then she revealed that “I come from a family which includes hereditary peers”, and it all went a bit frostier. By the time she was in full flow (“The House of Lords certainly needs reform. I haven’t thought far enough about it, but I think the subject ought to be thought about”), Lord Wakeham cut her short.

You could almost hear the great and good muttering to themselves that this is what happens if you admit the unfiltered public to the democratic process. But this particular rabble also included Sir Richard Knowles, the eminent political theorist, who caused more excitement than any invited witness when he spoke of the merits of appointment by random selection.

The idea of having a chance to participate directly in the political process clearly appealed to us: another speaker chose a similar theme. Sadly no one except the floor seemed to be listening. The commission members, impressively animated when examining witnesses, were now seeking diversion through all the little tricks that the rest of us had been trying for hours: eyes closed, head in hand, leaning back, leaning forward, surreptitious note-passing and, yes, examining the ceiling. No doubt everything that was said was taken on board, but that wasn’t how it looked from where I was slumped.

Lord Wakeham finally brought the day’s proceedings to an end at 7.10pm – 20 minutes before the advertised finishing time. No doubt the great and good had dinners in London to rush to; and we had woodwork to crawl back into.

Had we participated in a genuine democratic event? I had my doubts, but most of those I spoke to afterwards seemed content that, as Marcus Garvey put it, “At least we’re being consulted.” We had been allowed a voice and – even if we hadn’t been heard – had no right to expect more.