Electing the Lords: Issues 3 – Expertise
The third issue surrounding election of the Upper House is to do with the House’s reputation for expertise.
The Commons relies on the Lords immensely to help it do its work. Often, the Commons’ schedule is so packed that Bills arrive in the Lords from the Commons virtually untouched and huge reams of complicated legislation is overlooked and unscrutinised.
In recent years the Lords has produced on average 4-5,000 amendments to legislation per year. The Commons (and, by extension, the government) accept on average 40% of these amendments, and paradoxically, the majority of the amendments that are accepted are the most important and substantive changes. This is because the Government generally accepts that the Lords know what they are talking about.
The present House encompasses peers from a wide range of fields in British life. Edward Pearce explains why election cannot replicate this (1):
‘In any election for the Upper house, candidates will be chosen and promoted by party machines and voted for essentially by supporters of parties. It will palely reproduce the current Commons model…The virtues of a good second chamber are those of intelligent contradiction, of debate continued beyond the lines of party militias. It requires bright, specialist knowledge in all the key fields of life and work. The life peer system has done this and not done it at all badly. The present House of Lords breaks every rule of the pluralist handbook, yet it passes the test of troubling the executive.
‘A great and expanding flaw in modern politicians is that they are precisely, often exclusively that – politicians. They have begun early at university, in party clubs, have worked in the outer office of a Minister, at party headquarters or at the elbow of an MP. They have never tied an artery, sat up with a company’s books, sold a bond or plastered a wall. In an elected House, yet more politicians – hermetically professional, probably inferior – will fill the spaces required.’
And in May 2010, Paul Vallely of the Independent agreed (2):
‘The modern peerage is made up of a huge range of expertise: scientists and surgeons, lawyers and landowners, businessmen and bishops, novelists and nurses, spies and former diplomats. Their title is a recognition of excellence or eminence in their field…it offers considerable real life experience to counter the myopia of professional politicians.
‘What would an elected second chamber be like? It is no use saying that existing Lords’ members could stand for election; most wouldn’t. They are past the time in life where they need to be endorsed or seen to achieve. They would retire to their books, telescopes and gardens. Their replacements would be career politicians, probably second-rank ones at that – young politicos en route to the Commons, superannuated local council cronies, and representatives of each party’s grateful dead. It would be a place of seedy deals and the low politics of party whips. That is a notion attractive only to party managers who would breathe a sigh of relief at an upper house that would not rock the leadership’s boat. The chamber which is supposed to be the final check on executive power would now be firmly within its control.’
I’ve never heard a single convincing explanation of how an elected senate would be of higher quality than the existing members of the House of Lords, nor how the UK would somehow would be better governed than it is now.
And Donald Shell, an accomplished constitutional expert, has also weighed in (3):
‘A healthy democracy needs informed debate at its centre…Both chambers might do this, but the populism involved in competitive party politics inhibits the extent to which informed opinion can be the driver of debate in the Commons. A second chamber with expertise and experience of a more varied kind can help to serve the public in a different way.’
Of course, there will inevitably be gaps in the Lords’ expertise, particular on matters relating to their own constituencies and on social policy. But remember what has been said about the complementarity of the two chambers of Parliament at present. MPs are also very good generalists, jacks of all trades, masters of none, meaning they can plug these gaps with their capabilities. An elected Senate would undo this – instead of aiding the Commons, it would replicate the same fields, weakening the abilities of both.
Going back to the fact that the Lords has a high success rate in changing Bills (in part 1) – does this challenge the right of the elected Commons to decide the law? Not at all.
Despite the huge level of changes they make, the Lords very rarely seeks to amend Bills in such a way that it would destroy the principle intentions of a Bill ( what would be called ‘wrecking amendments’). As I said, the Lords understand their role to be complementary to the Commons, the elected Chamber, and leaves such matters to the Commons. Policy is decided by the Commons – the Lords job is to make that policy workable. At times, the Lords will see the policy in its entirety as unworkable – and if the Commons resolves to disagree, that’s what the Parliament Act is for.
The Lords’ expertise has brought itself to bear time and again in informing the work of Parliament and the Government in its deliberations. For example, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has a worldwide reputation for the excellent reports it produces for Parliament. The Lords European Union Select Committee is a vast, efficient machine, giving the British Parliament the reputation of being one of the best scrutinisers of European legislation in the whole EU. On many occasions, the government has submitted Bills to the House of Lords before the Commons with the express purpose of themselves putting their eyes over the details before going to the Commons. Emma Crewe, in her excellent anthropological study of the House of Lords, explained how European Commissioners were normally provided with three key documents to inform them of important matters when starting out – and two of these documents were provided by the Lords Science and Technology Committee.
In fact, the Lords’ committee system itself serves to complement the Commons. Unlike the Commons, the committees are deliberately non-departmental, and instead seek to plug the gaps in between departmental remits: Communications (which deals with press, television, radio and the Internet), the European Union, Science and Technology, Regulatory Reform, Economic Affairs, and the Constitution committees all conduct brilliant work which are invaluable to the Commons and to the wider world.
I have heard the argument that specialist expertise, such as that which the Lords boasts, is irrelevant to the worth of an Upper House. The argument is that such experts should get elected if they want to do so, or that they can do the same through giving evidence to parliamentary committees. But then, British parliamentary committees do not have the power to compel the government to do anything, and their ability to bring issues to the attention of the public in a meaningful way is dependent upon the sensitivity of the subject matter. The influence of committees on the government is difficult to quantify, and it is most often the floor of the Chamber in which members make a difference. If we removed our Lordly experts, their influence on legislation and policy would be eroded, weakening the ability of Parliament to give informed and reasoned assessments of national policy.
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3- Donald Shell, The House of Lords (2007), pp 166–7