A House of Specialists – A New House of Lords

House of Lords reform has been a cornerstone liberal democrat policy since I can remember and has been a hot topic in the country for the last year. Whether it’s the issues of unelected hereditary peers, promoting political cronies, or the many expense scandals. All parties now agree that if you had to design a second house today, you wouldn’t choose the one we have now. So if you could design the second house from scratch, what would it look like? Well, I’m going to have some fun and describe how I think it should be —my own House of Specialists.

Let’s first look at what the purpose of the second house should be. In the current system, their role is to advise and question the more powerful House of Commons. It cannot legislate directly and can only add amendments to legislation that the Commons can override. This makes perfect sense as the Commons are the representatives of the people. I like this balance as it creates an efficient form of government. With the Commons more dominate, important laws will never end become a game of ping-pong across the houses, and all the better that it’s the democratically elected Commons that is the most dominate.

So assuming we are happy with the Lords remaining a purely advisory, then who should we have as its members? Now I know the traditional reform of the lords has been the call to make it electable. The problem I have with that is elections leads to politics, and with politics, you end up politicians and political parties. Then only you’ll end up with a similar situation as you have now, with the additional problem of arguments of which house truly represents the people. Instead, I feel a better solution is to have the house filled with real experts of the fields, which are nominated by the country’s leading trade and professional associations.

Imagine a house filled with real experts in their fields, advising the government on their legislation without any political bias. Laws about crime being debated by ex-judges, solicitors and police officers. NHS budgets and policies being reviewed by leading doctors and nurses. Employment laws being discussed by dedicated trade unionists and business managers. All nominated by the leading professional organisations and outside the influence of the politicians in the commons. And each one has an equal vote so that each opinion is heard and considered for every bill put forward.

Now obviously this article is too small to describe all the details of how it would work and to be honest I haven’t come up with a lot of the details. This is more a vision of how I imagine the second house should be. And if we worked hard enough, how it could very well be.

* Ex gardener, now a stay at home father. Joined in December to fight for liberal progressive values - @stueybourne

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  • Johnny McDermott 26th Feb '20 - 12:15pm

    Really interesting discussion to start. I think the alarm bell is the “specialists” – because how do we define that, and who is qualified to recruit/ appoint them? An application process like normal careers (or civil service level of vetting) could work well here. I suppose really the people should be consulted as to how we do that, so they don’t feel ignored, but thoroughly agree we mustn’t have a second elected house. I’m still trying to work out how you’d replace the monarchy without opening it up to President Kardashian (if that’s a bad thing, perhaps I’m just being a snob)… it’s not easy.
    The other point – if it comes to a campaign or election to push these ideas, specialist will be exchanged for “expert” (you used it once yourself). And we all hate experts now, don’t we? (sigh!) The “lived experience” could be a good phrase. Like Doreen Lawrence, an undeniable “expert” in so many grim real life areas (criminal justice from victim’s family, inst. racism, campaigning for justice). As I’ve just discovered, experienced seems to become “expert” very quickly. In this soundbite, increasingly majoritarian age, we need a good name for it. But think the principle of the idea is sound. We should trust our experts. We just need to rehab their image a little.

  • Johnny McDermott 26th Feb '20 - 12:20pm

    PS. don’t be too dispirited by Nick Barlow’s fine example of how to utterly reject hypothetical thought experiments to generate new ideas. It’s the same argument deployed to dismiss the entirety of Rawls theory of justice. Hard to argue against, but not very constructive. Construct your own imaginery HoL, or correct his, don’t end the conversation!

  • Stuart Bourne 26th Feb '20 - 12:37pm

    Thank you for your comments. As I said this lacks details as I tried to keep the article short and sweet. To answer some of the questions, I envisage an independent committee would determine which organisations can be represented and then leave it to that organisation some flexibility to how they choose their members.

    Regarding the question of each member has a equal vote, this is to ensure any legislation is review from all angles and with different point of views. Maybe a social worker would have an interesting view on the impact of a criminal law.

    And finally, the use of ‘specialist’ or ‘expert’. Even i understand that this doesn’t quite fit right as a name, so I’m open to suggestions.

  • “I envisage an independent committee would determine which organisations can be represented”.

    And how did this independent committee come to exist? How was its composition determined?

  • David Allen 26th Feb '20 - 1:03pm

    Here is an alternative way to bring in expertise, one which avoids the problems of democratic legitimacy identified by posters.

    The replacement for the HoL should be a permanent Citizens Assembly, with members selected randomly from the population and paid well to serve for fixed periods of (say) 3 – 12 months. Their agenda, set partly by the HoC and partly by themselves, should be to scrutinise Bills and also key issues, taking (say) 1-3 weeks per topic. They should take advice from a range of expert sources, with the Civil Service vetting applicant “experts” to maintain a wide range and balance of “expert” views, allowing some commercial and political lobbyists, alongside academics and independents.

    So it’s populist, in the sense for example that ordinary people who want to express denialist or racist views will get their chance. But it’s also educated populism – in that the experts will get plenty of time to argue why simplistic knee-jerk ideas may not work. Sometimes the experts will prevail: sometimes popular “common sense” will prevail. Overall outcomes will, on the whole, get better.

    What could prevent this happening? The realisation by Johnson and Cummings, one suspects, that a Citizens’ Assembly would all too embarassingly outperform their incompetent Cabinet.

  • Stuart Bourne 26th Feb '20 - 1:20pm

    Andy Hilton – TBH I’m not sure about this. One possibility is that it would be similar to commons committee, but definitely with a cross party makeup. Their job primarily would be choose the organisations who pick the members rather than the specific members themselves, so there should be a good disconnect between the houses.

    David Allen – The issue with a people’s assembly is what happens if the houses disagrees. There would be a danger of legitimacy and who really represents the people. Plus if the people only end up listening to the experts, why not just the experts vote.

  • One thing I’d like to see is electronic anonymous voting. Break the whip system and encourage outcomes that have more cross-party consensus. Maybe more relevant to the Commons than the Lords, but I think it would take some of the ‘party politics’ out of it and let people vote with their conscience/personal politics rather than with one eye on how their party wants them to vote.

  • Dilettante Eye 26th Feb '20 - 2:13pm

    Frankly, the public are fed up with experts and specialists, who are all too often no more than self-defined as experts. The public are also fed up with Lords who start to sniff the feudal dust in their ermine robes, and really do believe that they are Lords with a sense of superiority over their fellow citizens.

    So, if we’re serious about this then let’s make sweeping changes to this archaic HoL which still lives in the 14th Century.

    1. First we should De-feudal-ise this second chamber. All those lords should be re-named Members of the Second Chamber.(MSC). This is as much a psychological exercise to level out between we the ground dwellers and those dwellers of their present ivory towers.

    2. Two out and one in until the numbers fall to a determined level of MSC occupants.

    3. That determined level of MSC’s to match the population of the UK on a basis of 1 per 100,000. So if the UK population is (say) 65,749,352, then there should be 657 MSC.

    4. Any and all adult UK citizens can place their name on a list of potential applicants to be a MSC for a one off five year term, which will be staggered.

    5. A jury service style of selection from that volunteer list of citizens wishing to participate.

    6. To avoid a selection of ‘MSC novices’ every five years the selection process should be staggered by two and a half years, whereby only half are replaced on a rolling two and a half year cycle. This would allow a ‘buddy’ system of experienced MSC’s to ‘show the ropes’ to newly installed MSC’s every two and a half years.

    7. The actual Second Chamber should be outside London.

    8. The Second Chamber should remain generally advisory.

    9. If the MSC’s of this Second Chamber conclude a voting position which is the reverse of the HoC position by a defined percentage (eg 85% or greater) then it should trigger a referendum on the issue in conflict between the Houses. The result of that subsequent referendum to be mandatory on a win of 60% or better.

  • Francis Hedley 26th Feb '20 - 2:48pm

    If we want experts in their fields, why don’t we look to where they have to go to work?
    The experts we would want for this will all need to be members of their professional associations; Architects in RIBA, Doctors in BMA.

  • Andy Hinton 26th Feb '20 - 5:36pm

    Because of course nobody who works in a field that has no professional association could possibly have any expertise.

  • Phil Beesley 26th Feb '20 - 6:17pm

    Andy Hinton: “Because of course nobody who works in a field that has no professional association could possibly have any expertise.”

    You do remember, Andy, that professionals who live and work outside London are a bit iffy. In 2015, UK government could not find a suitable lawyer or child services expert from their circle so they appointed a New Zealander to investigate child sex abuse. There are several hundred academic courses led by people who know a lot about child sex abuse, but they don’t live in London so they don’t matter.

  • “Imagine a house filled with real experts in their fields, advising the government on their legislation without any political bias. […] Employment laws being discussed by dedicated trade unionists and business managers.”

    To state the obvious, trade unionists have and should have a really obvious political bias.

    Other professional organisations are also unlikely to be mirrors of the general public on political views – farmers tend to be conservative, etc. They might not all have biases which map neatly onto the existing major political parties, but it’s not going to be some unbiased group even considered in total.

  • “It cannot legislate directly and can only add amendments to legislation that the Commons can override.”

    This isn’t the case though. Legislation can and does start in the Lords and cannot be passed immediately without their agreement. That has happened on several occasions with the Parliament Acts being used to pass the laws.

    “Imagine a house filled with real experts in their fields, advising the government on their legislation without any political bias. ”

    It’s naive to believe that ‘experts in their field’ don’t have any political bias. Or that they would automatically have some support for ‘the wider public good’ Doctors opposed the setting up of the NHS, there was a lot of police opposition to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act at the time IIRC. Journalists have quite strong views on the post-Leveson legislation, bankers on post 2008 financial regulation.

    If nominated by their professional bodies that is who they will be speaking on behalf and be accountable to. Too often those bodies only represent themselves rather than the people they purport to speak on behalf of (see eg Unite spaffing a chunk of members money on suing Anna Turley for example)

  • Toby Keynes 27th Feb '20 - 9:31am

    There are quite a few really interesting alternative approaches being explored here.

    All are flawed. Well, of course they are. No system is perfect.

    In particular, can we get away from the idea that, because experts and specialists will have their political biases, appointing them would be just as bad as the present system?

    Everyone has a bias, and experts/specialists in different fields and from different professions and communities will have different biases.

    But the current system is one where political bias is baked into the appointments system, because new members are nominated by party politicians who naturally wish to see each new appointment strengthening their party’s support in the Lords.

    For comparison, members of the judiciary have their political beliefs, which are (forgive me if I’m wrong) more likely to be broadly conservative; but would we want our judges to be subject to political vetting before appointment? It’s a horrifying thought – but that’s where we are with the current Lords appointments system.

  • “The issue with a people’s assembly is what happens if the house disagrees. There would be a danger of legitimacy and who really represents the people.”

    There is always a danger of legitimacy if two separate parliamentary bodies are set up to compete with each other. The perfect example is the US where the Senate and House of Representatives were deliberately designed to create gridlock (so as to leave the individual States with power), a design which was catastrophically successful!

    I totally agree that we must avoid that pitfall. Indeed, that is a reason for scepticism about an elected second chamber, which could usurp the primacy of the HoC, if the side which had just won a landslide electoral victory in the second chamber were to claim that this gave them the moral authority to expel the Goverment with an “out of date” mandate from a past election to the first chamber.

    The Citizens Assembly avoids that risk because its random selection takes no sides. Couple that with restrictions on its powers, i.e. that it cannot propose primary legislation and is a purely reviewing chamber, and I think we avoid the legitimacy problem.

  • “The issue with a people’s assembly is … Plus if the people only end up listening to the experts, why not just the experts vote.”

    There are plenty of technocrats around who think that the world should be run by technocrats and the ordinary people should just sit back and suck it up. Michael Gove tapped into a rich vein of public resentment against the over-powerful, over-self-confident “experts” telling people what to do. His solution, of course, was to put a clutch of populist robber barons in charge. What we need to do is to fight populism, and bring back the experts, but “on tap, not on top”. A Citizens’ Assembly can do that.

    The prople will NOT just “only end up listening to the experts”. People won’t stand for that. They will critically evaluate what the experts tell them. Sometimes, a majority of them may conclude that technocratic proposals wil be better than what their original “common sense” might have suggested to them. Sometimes, it will be the other way around. People will see that the experts have an agenda, for example maximum economic growth, which conflicts with the way they want to live their lives. In such cases, people will be entitled to send the experts packing – but only after they have listened to and evaluated the experts’ case.

    People who are not politicians and not technocrats feel powerless. They have demanded to “take back control”. They were “only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”, but sadly, like Michael Caine, they have instead gone for completely wrecking the nation with Brexit. A Citizens Assermbly could have defused these pressures by giving ordinary people a genuine, proportionate, share in power and influence.

  • Toby Keynes: I don’t think anyone is defending the current system as a good one, but given the opportunity to replace it, replacing it with a good one rather than just a marginally less bad one would be important.

    The problem with a “panel of experts” isn’t that they’d be biased – I want my politicians to be biased, that’s why I vote for them and against the other ones! – but that the bias would be less transparent and harder to directly change.

    If it turns out that the accountant-farmer-lawyer block in the 2nd chamber is consistently outvoting the cleaner-social worker block, and making legislation more conservative regardless of who controls the elected house, is that actually helpful or democratic?

    As far as what the House of Lords should be replaced with? How about “nothing” – double the size of the Commons (so legislator time remains about constant, and committee/report time for legislation can be extended to include a stage for detail work), switch it to some form of PR election, and let it get on with things without needing to worry about which house has superior claim to democratic legitimacy.

  • We must have a 2nd chamber but it must consist of representatives from regional Senedd, parliaments and regional assemblies.
    With a proposed change of representation in the HofC that will reduce the number of Welsh MPs from 40 down to 29, Wales will have less influence over UK legislation and its interests would be ignored. If that goes ahead then we in Wales and Scotland may as well leave the UK and continue to seek membership of the EU as independent countries.

  • Katerina Porter 28th Feb '20 - 8:53pm

    In the House of Lords there are the cross benches, where those who are not political sit. They are usually there because they are or have been contributors in different fields.An advantage of the House of Lords is that those who join it are usually in the last stage of their careers, not planning the next, and can feel free in their contribution in the way members of the Commons can find more difficult.

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