How do you pick an expert? The flawed argument against Lords reform

You need an expert. What do you do? There are plenty of different ways of going about finding one, I’m sure.

But I bet you don’t dig out the books from 20 years ago, look who was an expert back then, place the names in the hat and then pick out a name or two at random.

That, however, is how the House of Lords works – and that’s why I am unconvinced by those who argue that democracy has no place in one half of Parliament because ‘we need experts’.

Certainly there are some experts in the Lords. Just as there are some in the Commons. But the argument that elections for the Lords would be bad because ‘we need experts’, aside from having to glide over people such as Rory Stewart in the Commons, founders on the basic question, “if we need experts, why is the Lords set-up the right way to go about it?”

It’s an approach to finding experts that is riddled with flaws. You may be an expert at the time of appointment, but that is no guarantee you will still be one as your field moves on over the next 10, 20, 30 or more years. If you want to pick an expert, you judge people by their current knowledge – and have you noticed any peer who is against elections suggesting instead regular expertise exams to check peers are still up to the mark? I don’t think so.

Nor is taking an expert and giving them a post for life any way of ensuring you have the right balance of experts. Take the internet: a major factor in our society, economy and public sector and one that frequently comes up in government business. Yet the Lords has barely any experts in this field. As a collection of experts it’s a notably bad one.

There are plenty of ways to get experts involved – ways that let you pick experts whose knowledge is current and whose field of expertise is relevant to current needs. Giving someone a seat for life in Parliament isn’t needed.

So that’s one of the reasons why I think it is so important for the Liberal Democrats to push on with introducing elections for the House of Lords. It shouldn’t be the party’s only big issue, but nor should it be dropped – especially given the absurdity of a political system that rewards Parliamentarians voted out of office with a permanent seat in Parliament instead

Amongst the opponents, including yes some Liberal Democrat peers (and hence the grassroots Liberal Democrats for Lords Reform group), there is a canny understanding of the power of divide and conquer, trying to persuade some reformers to back off because what is proposed isn’t quite 100% their own preferred package.

But look at the lesson of those who took such a view in the 1960s and opposed Lords reform proposals then; the next 50 years showed how wrong that decision was. With all three parties nominally in favour of Lords reform and a package being put before Parliament this proposed package of reforms is our best chance in a century finally to spread democracy to the other half of Parliament.

If you agree, sign up to back the grassroots Liberal Democrats for Lords Reform group.

An earlier version of this piece first appeared on the Social Liberal Forum blog.

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9 Comments

  • I’m not sure that by expertise in the Lords we should mean cutting-edge knowledge of a subject, but rather deep, practical knowledge with the ability to understand the cutting-edge experts when they testify. Basically people that have had a career outside politics and KNOW (rather than can read briefings) about a subject.

    Besides, I don’t think experts is what’s most at risk with an elected chamber, they can be put on the party lists.
    It’s crossbenchers I’m worried about. they’re the only good argument for the current arrangement, and I believe quite unique to the UK (afaik they don’t exist in other countries where the second chamber is elected).

  • I think there is a balance to be struck so that experience (rather than expertise) is tapped in to. There is a case for senior judges, voluntary sector leaders, religious leaders etc to have their voices heard in the debates of the revising chamber.

    The question is not in my view who can contribute, or even propose amendments. There needs to be some limits but an element of appointed status can remain….IF…. and only if, they do not get to vote on the Bills. This renders the arguments around losing expertise and experience untenable. Whilst you can argue that voices need to be heard, you cannot argue logically (although members of all three parties do) that they should get to vote on laws alongside our, hopefully, elected members.

    Even as a Christian and member of the C of E I fail to see why Anglican Bishops have a vote in the Lords. I do feel that 1 or 2 retained to express the viewpoint of a sizable, yet dispersed minority may be a good idea. But I feel the same about other faiths and voluntary sector. For example when Parliament talks about the charity / voluntary sector it would relevant to have a direct voice in the chamber. If you add representatives from Schools, Universities and even (and this would never get past the Tories, Trade Unions) you could get the widest possible viewpoints into the chamber. Ex-Officio members could have to register to speak in debates (restricting them from contributing on measures to which they have no experience or expertise). Elected members would have to listen to wider opinion, but they, and they alone, would have the power of the vote.

    I know many feel that unelected representatives do not have a place in our parliament, I would agree that they should not have a vote, but feel that a compromise as set out above would win the argument both inside, and outside of Westminster.

  • The new proposals for the unelected 20% are an improvement in themselves. Opponents of elections (?) should perhaps be arguing for that proposed system, of an independent panel choosing experts, to be used for the whole house.

  • Denis Cooper 8th Jun '11 - 11:33am

    In my view it’s time that we recognised that the world is too complex, and therefore necessarily government and legislation are too complex, to be left to part-time amateur parliamentarians appointed on the basis of their professional expertise in other fields of activity.

    Those who are recognised as having specialist expertise in other fields can exert a useful influence on government policy and legislation in many different ways, without any need to give them the lifelong right to speak, let alone vote, in Parliament on every law which is under consideration.

    I’ve just been reading yesterday’s Lords debate on the Government motion to set up the Joint Committee, starting at Column 136 here:

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/110607-0001.htm

    and I’m not overly impressed by the performance of some members as parliamentarians, which should be their own primary specialism.

  • I think the most important aspect of the house of lords as it stands is it recognizes the power that unelected individuals have and then gives them an official and transparent channel for it.

    Lords will be influencing government policy and legislation whether or not we give them a seat and a title. So it’s better we stick a big warning label on them and have them do some useful work for us.

  • Andrew Wimble 9th Jun '11 - 11:18am

    I would certainly like to see experts become more involved in the parlimentary process. Currently the system seems to be that an independent panel of experts is formed to look at something and then their report is cherry picked. Anything they say that supports government policy is used to jusify it, anything else is rejected or simply ignored. If we really want expert imput in our legislation (and I certainly do) it would be better to look at a way to make it harder for governments to simply ignore any expert opinion that they disagree with.

  • The fact that we need experts in the HoL and the current system is poor at delivering them doesn’t in itself validate the introduction of elected Lords. We increasingly have professional politicians who have virtually no experience outside politics actually in charge – Cameron Osborne Clegg Brown Blair…. The Lords should complement the Commons, it has compensate for the weakness of the Commons, it has to be distinct. The point about how long people stay in the Lords and how current is their expertise is a good one, but there are other ways to control this – eg limiting the number of years a Lord can serve. That the current system stinks is not in itself a good enough reason to move to another system which also stinks. This is different to AV, which despite being a miserable little compromise was potentially a stepping stone towards PR. This is at best a shuffle to one side, at worst, a step in the wrong direction.

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