Moving to an elected second chamber – a loss of expertise, or just privilege?

August 2011 is the centenary of the Parliament Act, the supposedly stop gap measure to regulate relations between the two houses of parliament until an elected House of Lords could be created. The fact that we are still fighting for a democratic second chamber means it is all too easy to lose sight of the debates about what we want the second chamber to actually do. Unlock Democracy wants a fully elected second chamber capable of scrutinising and revising legislation as well as delaying it where necessary. It should be a deliberative chamber that builds on the strengths of the current House of Lords and complements the House of Commons rather than simply duplicating it. Crucially the second chamber should also be an expert chamber.

It is often argued that experts would not be willing to put themselves forward for election so at least an element of appointment has to be retained to allow them a way in to the second chamber. The current House of Lords is the clearest sign that appointment is not by any means a foolproof way of introducing expertise. A large plurality of sitting life peers – 35% – are drawn from party politics, having served as MPs, MEPS, councillors or party officials. This rises to 41% if trade unionists and former civil servants are included. Only about 6% are ‘experts’ in the sense of being an academic with a further 9% or from civic society or eminent in a field such as medicine. Even at current figures this means the experts have relatively little legislative influence; if, as is proposed, the appointed element of a reformed chamber makes up a much smaller fraction of a much-reduced membership, the number of experts appointed will likely be negligible.

If ever there was a good example of the House of Lords failing to live up to its expert status it was the passage of the Digital Economy Act. Information technology is one of the fastest changing industries and the appointment of expert members to the House of Lords was shown to be woefully behind the times. While there were certainly people who had experience of the creative industries as it had been ten or twenty years ago, there were few if any with experience of how the internet works in practice. There was considerable expert debate on blogs and twitter about what the impact of the proposals would be, but none of this made it into the debates in the House of Lords. Rather than hear evidence from all sides in the debate in the way most democratic senates around the world do, the Lords’ relied on their own expertise instead. This is not to say the House of Lords has never improved legislation or in many cases successfully defended our civil liberties; just that the reason for this is not its mythical expertise.

Unlock Democracy believes that experts should be brought into the legislative process to consider specific Bills rather than appointed as full time members of the House of Lords. Many expert members have a valuable contribution to be made in their field – such as sociology, or human fertility – but as full members of the second chamber they would be expected to vote on all issues whether well versed in them or not. The Astronomer Royal is undoubtedly an expert but does this mean his opinion on penal policy or electoral administration is more valid than anyone else’s?

It is far preferable to have a chamber where expert advice is sought externally as needed – for instance, through the use of select committees or special Bill Committees where bills can be scrutinised line by line – but where the final vote falls to democratically elected representatives of the people, suitably informed. This would ensure that the expertise called in was always relevant and up to date and would not mean that experts had to choose between their existing careers and advising on legislation in their field.

Alex Runswick is the Deputy Director of Unlock Democracy (www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk), one of the leading thinktanks in the field of civil society and constitutional reform.

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9 Comments

  • What element of appointment should we keep? What, in your model of the upper chamber, is different from the way the Commons works (other than, perhaps, the electoral system)?

    If only 56% of the Lords is made up of political types/trade unionists/civil servants/academics/civic society, who makes up the rest?

    Having the opportunity to defer to expert guidance is well and good as long as representatives are humble enough to know when they don’t understand an issue. Alan Johnson shows us how much respect elected representatives in the common have for expert advice. If experts are constantly present then they can flag up the need for more detailed discussion.

    Am far from convinced about the benefits of an elected HoL. Lords will have to devote time and effort to their election campaign and run campaigns against their competitors, leading to all the nasty squabbles we get with electing MPs. I imagine being subject to that would put off many humble, thoughtful and talented potential representatives.

  • paul barker 22nd Jul '10 - 4:30pm

    Says everything I wanted to say only better.Lets get on with this & if their nobbly Lords object, stuff the place with Democrats.

  • I think your definition of experts is rather narrow.
    My understanding of the expertise of the Lords is that they’re not necessarily academics on a particular subject but have had a life-long interest in one that allowed them to be much more knowledgeable on that particular subject than the average MP (and many of the ex-politicians fall in that category. with the added advantage from experts that they have more rounded knowledge as well). ‘Experts’ can be short-sited and partisan.

    one part of the elected Lords idea that I have concerns with (as much as I dislike the very idea of hereditary peers for example) is how do you account for Crossbenchers? that’s one aspect of the Lords compare to the Commons that is very welcome: non-political members, not at the mercy of partisan pressure. How do we preserve this with a purely elected chamber?

  • Prohibiting anyone who has ever been an MP form becoming a senator would be a good start.

  • IainM – It’s common for people to be at various times councillors, MPs, MEPs, MSPs, elected mayors, and so on. If people can get the public support to be elected, why should they not be members of the upper house regardless of their history?

  • Surely, there should be a way of designing the PR system in a way that the candidates on the list will include as many non-politicians as possible?

    I assume it’ll be PR on the basis of some lists of candidates – so the question is how you get to those lists. And I think a system ought to be designed where people who get on those lists include the kinds of people who currently make up the best bit of the house of Lords – people who have distinguished themselves in some way and bring experience and/or expertise.

    I am not sure if it’s possible, but I’d also design the elections so that campaigning is minimal: a centralised system of providing information about all the candidates on the list – but as little campaigning as possible. This might mean that the kinds of people who wouldn’t be willing to do a full political campaign could be included. And I think it would be good if the Upper Chamber were less political than the Commons….

    Perhaps just pie in the sky, but I think this kind of issue should eb considered very carefully.

  • I’ve just mentioned this on another thread but what do people feel about a two-ballot system?

    Elect most Lords according to party label in smallish 3-6 member STV constituencies.

    Then everyone gets a second regional or even national ballot where all the candidates put themselves without a party label. Rather than a party description you get 20 words to describe your expertise on the ballot – a published booklet is a good idea too for fuller manifestos.

    Thus you get a partisan majority elected proportionally and an additional bloc of Senators who are also elected but who represent charity and society groups, religion, culture and arts, industry, academia or whatever rather than political parties – though they might choose to caucus with a party once elected.

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